Every writer dreads the moment they send their manuscript to a potential agent.
After all the work we put into this labor of love, suddenly, we’re afraid to let anyone read. What if they hate it? What if it’s boring? What if I wasted all this time for nothing?
Those questions haunt all of us.
But that’s just the writer’s perspective. If you consider the agent’s point of view, everything looks a little different. Maybe your work isn’t boring. Maybe the agent doesn’t hate it.
You just failed to hook them.
Let’s face it: people are picky with how they spend their time.
If you’re trying to hook readers (or an agent), you want to stand out from everyone else. Nobody seems to want to talk about how complicated and necessary this is. I, however, will tell you the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
Look at your first page. Not the first chapter. Not the first two pages.
I need you to hook me in the FIRST. PAGE.
It’s not like TV shows or movies, where people will generally try to give a series the first three episodes, or the first thirty minutes. As writers, our job is significantly harder. We have to convince people to read. There are no flashy effects, no popular celebrities to act – we only have our words and our wit.
With all the content created on a daily basis, why should anyone read your work? Go ahead, I’ll wait.
And I’m bored.
You need to hit me with the who, what, when, where, why.
If the outside of your book – and maybe the summary – piqued my interest, you have to capture that nugget of gold and hold on tight. Tell me four crucial things (in no particular order):
1.) Character Counts
Whose story is this? Readers typically want to know who they’re gonna ride this rollercoaster with. Not only will it give them some grounding to get comfortable, but you start strong and sure of yourself. Don’t bog yourself down with too much flowery prose to set the scene. That can turn into a snooze-fest real fast!
Dillon Tucker made very few requests regarding his first day of high school.
First, he hoped his tiny legs would carry him through the halls quickly enough, and he wouldn’t receive any tardy slips.
Second, he prayed nobody would harass him as they had done in junior high.
His body didn’t fail him; he arrived to class with at least a minute to spare each period – only two other students showed up as early, though they made no attempt to greet him.
However, his second wish seemed to have gotten lost in God’s mail.
You’ve learned an IMMENSE amount in a brief period of time. Who are you reading about? A boy named Dillon Tucker. Where are we, and what’s going on? His first day of high school – and he’s determined to get through it.
You can pick up what the tone of the story is probably going to be. With the last line, there’s a hint of humor – which pairs incredibly well with a coming-of-age story. If I asked you to picture this character, you could probably form an idea without even getting to the description. He’s a small, easily bullied, lone nerd. He’s calculated, trying to get to his classes on time and avoid further harassment. There’s a voice that is easy to detect.
Finally, you’re curious. What happened with his second wish? Obviously, it didn’t come true, but what the heck happened?
This leads us to our second crucial element.
2.) To genre or not to genre
I know. I know. This is what cover letters are for.
However, I can assure you, the reader wants to know what they’re getting into. It’s possible they liked the summary, but your method of telling the story goes in a direction they just don’t vibe with. If they waste their time, they’re likely going to be upset. What does this mean?
You’ve turned them off of your stories – possibly forever. Worst case scenario, they off-handedly leave bad reviews to their friends who could potentially want to read your book. Can you hear it? The “oh, don’t get that. I spent half an hour reading and was so bored.”
While I wasn’t a fan of the films (who was?), I did enjoy The Hunger Games as books. Look at the very first paragraph we’re given:
When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.
As readers, we notice a couple things. I had never heard the name Prim before, so immediately, my mind wanders to what kind of world this is. Then, there’s the mention of “the reaping.” What in the gosh darn is that? I’m curious, so I continue.
We go in expecting to explore this world, because it most certainly isn’t ours. The element of fantasy is already present in the first paragraph. So now, we eliminate what we expect from other genres. We probably won’t have quirky first date scenes or shopping scenes between gal pals.
Setting up your tone honestly doesn’t take much. Just be genuine. Drop us into the life of your character, but only at the most interesting moment. Make sure there’s a reason we start where we do. This is where the story begins. Duh.
3.) What’s at stake?
I will admit: I scoff at this one. It’s SO FUCKING HARD.
It’s as awful as the “show, don’t tell” advice (which is to say, it’s just as difficult to achieve). Some writers are naturally talented at this. To them, I wish you a very awful day. Kick boulders, go sit on some mouse traps.
As for the rest of us, we’ll pull through. I promise. While it takes practice, this is a goal I would highly suggest trying to achieve.
I mentioned earlier that you want a reason to start where you do. Those reasons? Those are the stakes.
At least, that’s one way of looking at it.
Another way is going by the plot. What are the external struggles happening to your character? What are the conflicts within? How does this affect their relationships with other characters? Tell me why these details matter to the character. Make sure the reader understands why they care about this. The sooner they know what to root for, the sooner they can start rallying behind your character (and with the main person, they can easily get invested in your story).
Here’s an example:
Two months ago, Richie won a Grammy.
Hell, two weeks ago, he played a sold-out Madison Square Garden show.
But what mattered to everyone now was the train wreck from two days ago.
Biting the ID wristband off, Richie spit the plastic onto the floor of the rental car. His head, although actively killing him, hurt significantly less than it did yesterday. Driving probably (definitely) wasn’t ideal, but he couldn’t stick around Los Angeles another minute. His hands trembled and he hit the steering wheel in a fit of frustration, unable to open his water bottle before the light changed to green.
Richie Vogel didn’t make plans. He made decisions.
And the decision today? Hop on a flight to Dallas and don’t look back.
You immediately meet Richie, the protagonist. You learn that he played a sold-out show, and he’s most likely a musician. He had an identifying wristband and a rental car, and he’s in pain (though not extreme). He’s escaping one place and flying halfway across the country. We’re immediately hit with the stakes, and the plot of the story starts rolling.
Something has happened that’s forcing him to leave Los Angeles in a panic, and we’re left wondering what the particular event is.
It keeps your readers… reading. Though this is not to be confused with:
4.) The Big, Bad, Burning Question
Please, for the love of God, don’t go overboard. This isn’t a cliffhanger from the 50’s. You don’t need to ask a handful of questions. I get it. This is tempting. You want to make sure the reader is hooked.
But truly, you only need one question in the beginning to plant that flag. You can add more questions later, like breadcrumbs for the reader to follow to the end. Harry Potter didn’t start by telling us “is Severus ‘brony friendzoni’ Snape a good or bad guy?” “Will Voldemort be defeated and never seen again?” “Does Harry have a chance to live with anyone else but the Dursleys?”
No. We get question after question, until the very end. This might be a bad example considering it was a span of seven books and also Rowling is an asshole.
But that’s not important to your storytelling.
What were the questions from the previous examples?
First, we’re left wondering what made that nerdy kid’s day so terrible. While that won’t take up the entirety of the story, it’s a lead to get the reader started.
Second, we want to learn what “the reaping” is. There is plenty more drama and mystery to uncover, but we start with one big question, and the much smaller question of “where’s Prim?”
Third, we need to figure out what’s making a musician run away from the land of famous people (and the smaller questions of, what was that ID bracelet, and why a rental car).
You don’t need anything wildly extravagant. You just need to share why your story is worth reading. Why do I want to know about your main character, and the world they exist in? Tell me in one page or less, or I toss your book aside.
Trust me, this is the easy part.
The hard part comes after, because the rest of your book has to live up to this spectacular introduction.
I believe in you though. After all, you came to me for advice, and that’s a good step in the right direction.