Monday, February 16, 2015

Agency Lessons: Crafting your opening

Agency Lessons is a weekly post that gives authors and readers an inside look into the mind of a literary agent and a peek behind the curtain of how books are made.

I had the pleasure of speaking to an MFA class last week. They had some great questions, including how do you write an opening that hooks readers. That's a pretty loaded question, but I gave it the old college try. And since writing an engaging opening is a crucial part of querying (when an agent only sees five or ten pages) I thought you guys might be interested as well.

There are a million different ways to grab readers with your first pages, but I've narrowed it down to three key points to keep things simple.

1. A "before" snapshot
The meat of your story is what happens when something crazy happens to your main character and their world gets turned upside down. It doesn't matter if that flip is an alien invasion or just meeting the perfect guy after deciding to give up on love. Regardless of what kind of plot you've got cooked up, you need to let us meet your character before everything changes.

By giving us a quick peak of their life pre-upheaval, we get to know them better and are more likely to care when everything goes to hell in a hand basket. By providing that glimpse, the change is more highlighted and will feel bigger than if you just leaped right into the action.

2. A trope headstand
We all know the beginnings that now make readers cringe: waking up, new job, driving to a new house, looking in the mirror, etc. Can we all agree to not use these anymore? So when you decide where to start the tale, consider activities or situations that are perfectly normal for your character, but will be outside the norm for your average reader. So, if your character likes to skydive, let him start at the edge plane. If your character is a cheerleader, show us right when she gets tossed into the air for a back flip toe touch.

But it doesn't have to be extreme. Maybe your character fills her afternoons sorting library books that have been incorrectly shelved, even though she doesn't work there. Maybe he's feeding the pigs on the family farm. Nothing crazy exciting about either one of those activities, but they are outside the average human experience and let us really get to know your character.

3. Tell me what you want, what you really, really want
And now that song will be stuck in your head for the rest of the day. Sorry about that. But you can really kick up your opening scene by giving your character a need or want. I'm not talking about their big story goal here, just a little want. This small goal gives your readers a way to immediately start cheering for your character.

Maybe your pig farmer is trying to rush through his chores because he wants time to send an important email before work of school. Maybe your cheerleader isn't just in practice. Maybe she is competing at nationals. By creating a mini need/want readers are immediately invested, trying to find out if they achieve their goal. Plus, it helps to give that opening scene a drive and purpose.

It should go without saying that in addition to these factors, your pages should also be squeaky clean of grammar issues and typos. But just in case, make sure you've got plenty of eyes to look at these pages. If I find several issues on every page, I'm going to assume your book needs more work than I can give it.

If you can incorporate all three of these tips, chances are you'll be submitting some pretty strong opening pages. Now you just have to perfect that query. :)

Did you have any other tips for writing compelling opening pages? Share them with us in the comments.

If you are a newsletter subscriber then this won't be new, because you guys always get the good stuff first (see, this is why you should subscribe). For the rest of you, I added two bonus scenes from Rite of Rejection to Wattpad this weekend. You can check them out, but be warned that they have spoilers so be sure to finish the book first. Have a great Monday, all!


  1. By far the hardest part of crafting my novel was the beginning. I had what I thought was a good one, (original, and moody and kind of perfect) that gave just enough insight to the mc's life before the inciting incident. A really great agent told me to cut it and get right to the place where the incident happens. So I did. Then another really great agent said there wasn't enough world building.... excactly what I'd cut. Frustrated, I finally asked a few unbiased people and the majority said to get right to the excitement. I do like the way it turned out, but I feel that those two chapters I deleted gave so much insight into the mc's head, that reader's won't entirely get him like I want them to. Regardless, the opening chapter is always the hardest. You have introductions to make without infovomit backstory, you have world building and setting to consider, and you have one chance to hook the reader into investing their time in reading on. That's a lot of pressure.

  2. Sometimes beginnings come to me immediately. Other times I have to save the opening scene almost for last. For my current WIP, I rewrote the entire opening scene. In order for me to understand the world it was set in, I had to do an info dump—knowing I'd rewrite it later. I put the book aside for a while and then went back to it. At that point I rewrote the opening, and I'm kind of in love with it now. I'm sure it will continue to change during revisions later on, but I think I have a solid beginning now.

    Oh, and you totally reminded me that I need to get on Wattpad.


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