Nathan Bransford has a really good post up about what makes a good opening. His point is that writers get caught up in the goal of getting an agent's attention, and confused "pulling them into the world of the book" with shocking them.
Perhaps the most common shortcoming I'm seeing in some of the entries is that they try too hard to be surprising or shocking or pulling one over the reader.
I've been guilty of that in some of my critiques here- telling the author they should move the action closer to the beginning, or complaining that there's not enough action. I think that's because at some point, everything in this business is subjective, and we've been bombarded with conflicting advice. Start with action! Start with drama! We read 500 queries a day and you need to have something that makes us *notice* yours!
And Nathan's right- shock value might make them notice it, but that doesn't mean it's good. I think the most important thing in a first page is to make the reader care about the main character. That's why they're going to keep reading. Whether you do that through action or a slower opening is up to you.
The second most important thing is to show some conflict. It doesn't have to be physical, or shocking- but it needs to be meaningful to the main character and help with the most important thing, making us care about them. Ray Rhamey is very fond of pointing out that there's no story without conflict. And he's right.
Now, to take my own advice. I'm starting over this time around (having just completed my first-ever manuscript and realized that it needed a major overhaul). This is another place I've gotten conflicting advice- do you think it's important to get the first page perfect before moving on? Or should I not worry about it until I'm finished?
There are good arguments for both methods. I used the latter when writing said manuscript, on the principle that a whole novel that needed reworking was better than having a great first page and nothing else. But now that I've tried the second method and wound up with something fairly unusable (although it's because of plot, or the lack thereof), I'm awfully tempted to try the first.
Labels: first page