On New Year's Eve my agent mentioned to me that he had just received a rejection for one of his other client’s novels from an editor with whom it had been since May 2004. I immediately pictured the editor zooming through a stack of manuscripts on his/her desk, trying to clear it for the coming year. Not gripped by the first quick, expert glance at the manuscript's first page, the harassed editor moved on.
This brings home in a real way my belief that it is the very FIRST page that determines whether or not a busy agent or editor reads more. I think your opening page has to be COMPELLING. To the right is a typical agent/editor, terminally weary of openings that fail and dreaming of finding just one that grabs her by her furry little ears.
There are straightforward techniques for reaching out to a harried mind and provoking a moment’s attention. One is to open your story in the midst of something happening. Opening in the middle of action (versus placidly setting the scene) is a key to engaging a reader.
Hairball raced across the clover, leaping honeybees, never taking his gaze from Barfie, praying her grip would hold.
This opening raises immediate story questions that a reader will want to know the answers to—why is Hairball racing? Who is Barfie? What is Barfie? What do they have to do with each other? What’s Barfie's scary-sounding problem?
Unusual circumstances added to the action intensify interest. You’ve heard of “fish out of water” stories…how about “cat in water?”
Up to his dewclaws in the cold wetness of the stream, Hairball wanted to yowl his discomfort, but he had to choke back all sound and keep his eyes on his prey.
Opening with action that depicts a significant challenge to a character will keep a reader moving down the page, too.
Hairball eyed the tree trunk's towering height. It was an impossible climb. He was too small, too weak. But if he didn’t climb, Barfie would fall to her death.
Plenty of story questions raised there. But we can do better. Now let’s open with action combined with jeopardy for increased tension.
Barfie dug her claws into the branch, struggling to keep her balance. She dared not look down; her last glance at the dizzying height had almost sent her tumbling. Her ears caught a cracking sound…the branch was tearing away from the trunk.
Yeeks! Now to really create opening tension by combining action and jeopardy with conflict.
Hairball arched his back and hissed at the beast. It was easily three times his size, an alien species that had been stalking him and now crouched, poised to spring. There was no place to run. He extended his claws…
Don’t get me wrong. Not all openings have to begin with physical action…but they MUST begin to raise story questions immediately. Remember that thoughts are action, too.
Hairball wondered if Barfie’s soul now rested on one of the puffy pillows in the sky, freed from her broken body. How would he face her mother after he’d sworn they would be safe?
The point of all this is that your opening page narrative has to first be vivid enough to catch the reader's thoughts and then compel reading on by raising story questions. I’ll tell you something else—I think that, for a new novelist to break in, every chapter ought to do the same thing.
Seems like a story about kitty-cats ought to have a happy ending, so here’s Hairball and Barfie after their adventures are done. You supply the narrative…hey, email yours to me. If I receive enough, I’ll post them for an entertaining and, perhaps, instructional episode in Flogging the Quill.
Free edit in exchange for posting permission. You send a sample that you have questions about and of which you'd like an edit. I won't post it without your permission.
© 2005 Ray Rhamey