Hey guys, happy Tuesday! It’s Alex again and today I’m here to talk about one of the most common pitfalls I see in first pages: lack of action.
Interns (and agents) read through a ton of queries and an equal amount of first pages. First ten, first chapter, first twenty-five, however many you’re asked to send, these are the pages in which you make your impression. Your job is to make us want more, make us clamor to get our ereader-filled hands on the full, and most of all make us form a connection with your main character. And you know that whenever you edit these, somewhere “Eye of the Tiger” is always playing.
But more often than not, when I read through newly received queries I see a lot of internal conflict and not as much of the external. Maybe it’s the first day of school and the MC has nervous feelings, or maybe the MC is trying really hard to keep a secret but it’s an otherwise normal day. What’s the external action? Ostensibly, no different from any other day.
Kate gave a really great piece of advice a while back on Twitter when she suggested to “start on the day that it’s different.” Sure, we need to get some grounding but the magic fact of today is: readers honestly don’t need that much background info early on.
Seriously. It’s difficult to want to keep reading when nothing happens outside the mind of the character, and while this is true especially for first pages, it’s also good to keep in mind for the rest of the book. You need that steady zing! of external action balanced with interior conflict to keep a reader hooked and stakes high. Agent Mary Kole has a great post about that here.
Another great tip from Ms. Kole is imagining scenes in your book as scenes from a movie. Would a director focus only on a character paused before action or stuck in thought for minutes? Or would you see contemplative moments punctuated by escapes, confrontation, and other outside tension? Same with starting scenes: pretend you’re filming the very first scene in your book, the one that makes up your ten pages. What directions would you give the actor playing your main character?
The more you can get your readers to have an emotional connection and investment in your character from the beginning, the more willing we’re going to be to stick with them to the very end. Putting characters into conflict helps, especially starting them in a situation that’s different (like the day at school the lab blows up or someone finally steals the principal’s toupee) even if it starts out familiar at first.
The more willing you are to put your characters in uncomfortable situations, the more likely we’re going to see some quality in them that we connect with, and that, ultimately, will keep us reading more.
Alex Yuschik is an intern to a literary agent and can be found @alexyuschik on Twitter.