Your first sentence has to GRAB the reader and not let go. Keep this in mind before you submit the work. First paragraphs are crucial as well. Many agents and/or editors will confess that they stop reading on the first page if they’re not hooked. It’s tough to hear, but when you calculate the sheer number of submissions they receive, it makes sense. To quote agent Kristin Nelson:
“…trust me, we won’t keep reading to get to the “good part.” The opening is everything when you are trying to get an agent’s attention.
A terrible and disheartening statistic is that for 90% of the submissions we receive, we won’t read beyond 2 pages. (I know. Ouch.) We know that quickly whether a) a manuscript is ready for an agent’s attention or b) if it’s right for us. Anything well-written, we’ll read all 30 pages of the submission before deciding to request a full or not.”
Here’s her blog address if you want to read the entire entry: http://pubrants.blogspot.com/
I recently wrote a blog for BRAVA about this very thing, and wanted to give an example featuring Paul Revere. Here’s one way (not the good way) of starting his story:
Clouds gathered across the heavens, thunder rolling, lightning hinting at oncoming strikes. Paul sighed, his thighs clenching the rushing horse. He had a job to do, but would rather be home with Sarah. He’d met her several years ago and hoped to spend the rest of his life convincing her that the one time he danced with Susy Jane at the Smith’s barn raiser; it was because his mother insisted upon it. His mother. The woman who taught him that duty called, a lesson he learned when he stole an apple from the Jones’…
What’s wrong with it? Well…while the first sentence is kind of pretty, it’s about the WEATHER. Not the best hook in the world. Then the paragraph erodes into BACKSTORY and INTROSPECTION. Is Paul’s strong urge to fulfill duty important to the story? Sure. But does it have to go in the first paragraph? HECK NO.
A much better beginning:
Hoofbeats and painful death pounded behind him. They were getting closer. Paul tightened his thighs on the stallion running full-bore, ducking his head as branches ripped sharp bark across his face. Faster. He must go faster. If they caught him, his friends would die. His country would fall. Moonlight glinted off a weapon through the trees, and he yanked on the reins. The horse trilled in protest. A shout sounded from a roadblock ahead. They’d found him.
This paragraph raises some questions. Who is Paul? Who’s after him? What happens now that they found him? How and why would his friends die and his country fall?
There are many ways to begin your book to hook the reader. The most important thing to remember is that you want to start in the RIGHT place. Not three chapters before the right place. Choose an exciting place and get your reader committed right off the bat.
Keep in mind that you don’t have to start with bullets flying or cars crashing down the road. (Of course you can if you want). You could start with your characters in an argument—the reader will want to know why they’re fighting and…who wins. Get your reader invested in someone – either by having her relate to the heroine or admire the hero. You have to make the reader (or the agent or editor) care enough to turn the page.
What not to do: A couple of flaws get an instant ‘no’ from an agent or editor:
1) The first chapter being entirely about back-story, why everyone is where they are right now. The problem with this is it slows the pace so much the reader is wondering what to buy for lunch and not what happens next in the story. Start with the NOW. (The exception for this is when you use a prologue, which 85% of the time you don’t need to do. If the scene is years before and needs to be told in current time, then maybe use a prologue. Only if you have to.) 🙂
2) Oversetting the scene: Yes, we want a time and place for the scene. But it isn’t really necessary to describe in great detail the floor, ceiling, every painting on the wall…
3) Starting the story with the heroine sitting and thinking about what’s wrong in her life. Don’t tell what’s wrong—show it. If she has a psycho ex-boyfriend who won’t leave her alone, don’t start the story with her crying about it on the porch swing. Start the story with the doorbell ringing…
Here’s the first paragraph for CLAIMED, which is the second book of the Dark Protectors Series out from Kensington Brava:
She’d die if she jumped.
Probably with a great deal of pain first. The rotating hum of the helicopter’s blades echoed through the confined space of the aircraft as Emma Paulsen calculated her odds of a quick death—she’d likely hit a tree or two before slamming into the earth. Hmm. Not good.
The first chapter sets the groundwork for the rest of the book. The beginning sets forth the important plot elements, makes us care about the protagonists, builds the world and shows conflict(s). It makes a reader keep turning the page, thus meaning an agent/editor will request the full manuscript.
There are many methods to use in developing your own writing style. One that has worked for me (I began struggling against it because I’m a panster) has been to outline the first chapter. What happens? If you are concerned about pacing, you will quickly discover why if you outline your book. If chapters 4-8 ALL begin with your characters talking out on the deck and end with them going to bed, talking some more…you may have a pacing problem. In fact, when I send a new book to my agent, I send an outline with it. If you’re having difficulty, go outline chapter one of your story. AFTER you outline, answer the following questions.
1) What characters are introduced in your first chapter?
2) Why should the reader care about your character(s) after the first chapter? OR, what could you do to make your reader care more?
3) What characteristics (if any) do we know about the hero/heroine/villain after the first chapter?
4) What conflict(s) did you introduce in your first chapter?
5) Most good stories begin at a moment of change. Something happens. What is your moment of change?
6) What world building elements have you included in the first chapter?
7) What setting elements did you include? (Will the reader know the time/season/date/place of your story?
DID YOU SHOW THE MAJORITY OF THE ABOVE WITHOUT TELLING IT?
Hope this helps!