It happens all too often: you have a great story, yet every agent you contact rejects your manuscript.
“Didn’t pique my interest.”
“Didn’t strike a chord.”
“Isn’t resonating with me.”
While there are many reasons a manuscript gets turned down, a boring first page tops the list. Why read the rest of a manuscript if it doesn’t captivate you from the start? As many agents will say when you send a mediocre first page, “No thanks.” The remedy? Create a first page that wows. Get ready to lasso your reader by including these five elements on page one.
An Intriguing Opening Line
Creating a first line that hooks your reader is imperative. A compelling first sentence grabs a reader’s attention. Maybe it’s funny or thought-provoking. Perhaps it introduces a problem. You want your reader to wonder “What happens next?” or “Why did the character just do that?” If your first sentence doesn’t inspire your audience to keep reading, it hasn’t done its job.
Examples of some famous first lines:
- “Where’s Papa going with that axe?” Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White.
- “There was a time, and it was many years ago now, when I had to stay in a hospital for almost nine weeks.” My Name is Lucy Barton, Elizabeth Strout.
- “A screaming comes across the sky.” Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon.
When a reader first meets a character, (let’s call her Sam), some vital aspect of Sam’s nature should be revealed. Don’t waste time. Convince your reader that Sam is worth getting to know. How do you do this? Show Sam’s thoughts. What does Sam want most? Give her a goal. Make getting to know her impossible to resist. This gives the reader an immediate peek into Sam’s mind. Include a distinctive personality quirk or an unusual physical detail. The bottom line? Make her memorable from the start.
Start your manuscript at a pivotal moment—right when the “trouble” starts. Have Sam in the midst of action or interacting with others. The opening action should either be crucial to the story or lure the reader into the mystery of your character. Show rather than tell by using strong, expressive verbs, and avoiding the use of adverbs. Include Sam’s feelings, inner thoughts, and fears. Instead of saying Sam was angry, show Sam’s anger. Did she slam her fist into the wall? Storm out of the room? Did her heartbeat thunder in her ears? By showing rather than telling, the story’s action becomes three-dimensional.
Conflict and tension work together to provide contrast within the story. Conflict is the foundation of a story’s architecture. You give Sam a goal and then put obstacles in her way. The heart of conflict is a character’s struggle with some other force. This clash between these two opposing sides drives the story. Without it, there’s no point. If Sam gets what she wants when she wants it, who cares? Open with Sam in conflict or in pursuit of something that is out of reach. Make achieving her goal a difficult task.
Types of conflict:
- Man vs. Self
- Man vs. Man
- Man vs. Nature
- Man vs. Society
- Man vs. Machine/Technology
- Man vs. Fate
- Man vs. the Supernatural
Tension, the anticipation of what will happen next, raises the stakes and evokes emotions such as fear, worry, and anxiety. With each setback Sam endures, the tension stretches not only for her but for the reader as well. Keep your audience asking questions by building uncertainty and the need to know. Together, conflict and tension create momentum. If you set up a compelling conflict and keep the ebb and flow of tension in your scenes, your audience will keep turning the page.
Mood is the general feeling or atmosphere surrounding a story. How do you produce a specific mood in your work? By incorporating tone, setting, voice, and theme.
Tone indicates the writer’s attitude toward a subject or an audience. Achieving tone relies on syntax, imagery, character, and diction. Word choice is critical.
Examples of tone:
Setting confirms where and when your story takes place. Incorporate specific words and imagery. Want your setting to shine? Using one or more of Sam’s senses to add power to the scene. Have Sam smell the enticing fragrance of the honeysuckle bush near the porch. Or let Sam be threatened by a demon-shaped thundercloud. Give your reader a solid understanding of the setting right away. This does not mean rattling on about the mountains, the sky, or the old farmhouse. Be quick and decisive in your descriptions.
Voice arises from distinct personality, style, or POV. It’s the quality that makes an author’s writing unique. The writer weaves attitude and character throughout the manuscript. Word choice, punctuation, and content all play a part. Keep your voice consistent and strong, confident and calm. Be present, and by all means, don’t be boring.
Theme, the underlying message, allows the reader to see a deeper meaning in the story and the author’s motivation for writing it. How do you develop theme? Ask yourself questions: Why did you write the story? What message do you want to give your audience? To make your theme understood, repeat ideas in different ways, use symbols, and contrast values. Every story is an argument. The theme solidifies that argument.
Examples of theme:
- Karma is a bitch.
- You are who you pretend to be. Love heals all wounds.
- Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
A good first line, characterization, action, conflict, and mood work together to make your first page sing. Often, you can add an element to the story in one or two sentences—maybe a paragraph. Or intertwine a few principles at once. Whatever you do, your writing should be crisp, concise, and on target. Entice those agents. Make them beg for more.
Robbi Sommers Bryant has been editing professionally since 2011. She is a multi-genre editor who has been published both traditionally and by self-publishing. Her award-winning books include a novella, four novels, five short-story collections, and one book of poetry. Published in magazines including Readers Digest, Redbook, Penthouse, her writing can also be found in college textbooks and several anthologies. Her work was optioned twice for television’s Movie of the Week. She currently serves as vice president of Redwood Writers—with 335 members, it’s the largest branch of the California Writers Club. Her focus is developmental, content, and copy editing.
If you missed it, be sure to check out Robbi’s insightful appearance in our Ask the Editor column.