From Writer's Relief staff:
If you’re a writer with publishing goals, then you know how important it is that the literary agents or editors reading your material keep reading. After all, if your submission doesn’t hook the reader right away, there are plenty of other submissions to take its place. With that in mind, we’ve outlined three major elements that make or break a piece in the first few pages so that you can make sure you’re submitting the best short story, essay, or book query possible.
Any character you present in the opening pages of your essay, short story, or book manuscript should be intriguing. Don’t waste any time; show the reader quickly why it’s worth getting to know the character. If he or she is clever, altruistic, or creative, then readers will be happy to get to know someone they can admire. If your character is dark, dangerous, or unpredictable, readers will be interested to find out more about a multidimensional villain or anti-hero. Establish a goal or desire for the character quickly, and open with a scene that highlights that motivation—but be careful not to explain away any mystery. Offer your readers just enough information to keep them interested, but not so much that there’s nothing left to discover.
HINT: These tips are far more affective when you highlight one character’s development in the opening pages. Try not to delve too deeply in multiple characters’ personalities and motivations before you’ve made sure the reader is fully invested in the first character.
2. Opening Action
To quickly hook your reader, focus in on an intense and important moment. This doesn’t have to be a flashy, shocking scene—and shouldn’t be unless truly appropriate. A ten-year-old boy nervously approaching his school’s soccer field can be enough to get the reader invested in the character and outcome of the scene; the most important thing is to include gravity and importance. Does the boy trip and run away in tears when everyone laughs? Or does he discover that he’s an excellent soccer player and gain the team’s admiration? Regardless of what you choose to showcase in your opening pages, something needs to happen. There should be an undeniable force driving the reader from one page to the next, and the next, and so on.
NOTE: If your piece begins with a prologue, consider carefully if it is absolutely vital. Many writers second-guess themselves and worry that the reader will be lost without a clear “beginning,” but prologues can dilute the energy of the opening. If removing the prologue won’t totally destroy the rest of the storytelling, it’s probably best to either nix it completely or attempt a revision that involves adding the prologue’s content elsewhere in the narrative. As long as the prologue isn’t completely necessary to the structure of the story, most literary agents and editors would rather you not include it.
Choosing a unique, unexpected, extraordinary setting will give you the automatic bonus of a higher interest factor in your opening pages. By describing an especially interesting setting as readers are getting to know your character and his or her world, you’ll have an easier time hooking and keeping your reader. Of course, if the story you want to tell is best set in run-of-the-mill suburbs, you don’t have to worry. Including a fascinating setting is a good way to pull readers in right away, but that doesn’t mean that a familiar setting will hinder readers from staying interested. As long as you don’t let a “boring” setting translate to boring writing, you’re in the clear. You can still describe your average soccer field in such vivid detail that readers feel they’re living the scene with the character. And if you do want to offer something surprising, you can try presenting the scene from the character’s point of view so that he or she can offer unique insight that would have been missed otherwise.
Don’t let your next submission fizzle before it’s gotten off the ground. Review these tips next time you’re preparing your short story, essay, or book manuscript for submission to literary agents or editors: Establish your character’s personality and desires, create sufficient action and momentum, and describe vivid, interesting settings in which everything can unfold.