When agents say they know very quickly whether they'll be interested in an author's manuscript, they mean it. Even back when I was working in an agency's slush pile, it was clear within a few pages whether or not the story was in shape to be queried. Now as an editor, it may take me reading the entire manuscript to know if I love it, but it only takes a few paragraphs for me to know if the story is for me or not. Before I started working in slush piles, I used to think that was unfair. How much could someone know about my story from a few paragraphs? But over and over again, I saw issues that showed up on the first pages continuing through the whole manuscript: problems with grammar, sentence structure, too much telling, heavy-handed ideas, or structures and events that were cliche. First pages really are often indicative of the story as a whole. And while an agent may keep reading even if there's too much telling in the first few pages, it's best to make a great first impression. (And readers will want those first pages to be gripping, too!)
Here are a few of the main things I'm looking for in a compelling first page:
1) First Lines
Awesome first lines do so much to set the tone of the story and the readers' expectations. Great first lines should match the tone of the novel: comedic, suspenseful, thoughtful, mysterious. I love an idea that grips me with what it has to say about character and the story. Long, involved lines about sunsets or other elements of nature, even if they're excellently worded, don't show me either of those things. I've seen a lot of manuscripts open with complicated sentences packed with imagery describing something scenic. Usually they're trying to set the stage the way a wide shot in an epic film might do. But that often translates poorly for novels and doesn't have the intended effect. Use your first line to show me something awesome about the kind of story and the kind of character we're following around, and you'll hook me.
"Action" can mean two different things when it comes to manuscripts. It can mean an action scene, in which exciting and explosive and high-action things are happening (chase scenes and the like), or it can mean simply that people are doing things that matter to the plot. Action should be on your first page-- not chase scenes, usually not explosions, but rather your characters should be doing things that get the story going. Start with "the day that's different" and have your characters reacting to the change. Whatever event gets your story rolling, get bits of it going on the first page. That will convince us interesting and suspenseful things are going to happen, and we're probably going to stick around for it. Avoid long conversations, having characters wander around getting ready for the day, long drives, or scenes that don't have much related to the plot going on. We need to be convinced this story is getting somewhere. Keep in mind, though, action scenes involving chases or deaths or explosions usually aren't effective beginning scenes because we don't know the characters enough to care about what happens to them. Introduce them as they're doing things that matter, and then once we care about your characters, take them to those action scenes. We'll be on the edge of our seats.
3) Avoiding cliche
This is a big one because it says so much about how the story is structured. Cliche elements early on in the story usually mean cliche elements later on, too. It's hard to write something completely new, but there are a lot of devices that have been used so much they've lost their impact and aren't effective anymore. Ringing alarm clocks waking up a character, dream scenes, the character viewing himself or herself in a mirror so the author gets the chance to describe hair and eye color, a voice that's super sarcastic or too bitter without a justifying reason, the bubbly, flirtatious best friend who doesn't get much deeper but gives the main character something to roll her eyes at, etc. These things may once have been perfectly fine, but they've been used so much, they're not nearly as effective as something else. Lists of ten can be great ways to escape cliche. When you're tempted to have the scene open with the character waking up, list ten other ways the scene could begin. Dressing for school? Hearing a dog bark? Falling down the stairs because she's trying to put on her shoes as she walks? Usually the first two or three things you think of will be the things everyone else is thinking of-- and therefore the same things agents are growing tired of and readers are getting bored with. Go further down that list of ten, and you'll get more original and escape cliche as you go.
This can immediately make your MS stand out. I'm immediately thrilled when I see the personality of the character coming through in the actions taken and the tone of the narration. Personality is a huge part of voice; combined with the style of the prose, it IS voice. Because voice and personality are made by careful nuances, they're often lacking or weak in the opening page. Pump up those nuances that tell us what kind of person we're following around-- not just surface things like sweet or sarcastic. Go deeper. If your character has style and flair, show us. Oftentimes the main character is a "mostly normal" character in an unusual situation, and that can make for a boring voice. (This happens a lot. Double-check yours.) The voice of a "mostly normal" character shouldn't lack distinction. When it comes to people, I'm not convinced there IS a "normal." We're passionate about things like ferrets and fair trade coffee. We tend to interrupt other people and make up words and use phrases like "you know?" a lot. We have fears we don't want people to know about and things that annoy us and things we love beyond reason. Those quirks and habits say something about the brain behind them; work the way that mind thinks into your voice. Show us with word choice and thoughts and attitude and reactions and what goes unsaid what the personality of this character and his story is, and we'll gladly come along for the ride.
Want some examples and explanations of how to structure a great opening to a complex story? Check out "Opening Pages: Using The Vampire Diaries To Guide Your Beginning," where I go through prologues, starting with a specific kind of action, using suspense, and showing character development.
What are your first page struggles? How did you solve them? Ask a question, and I'll answer if I can!