There’s nothing more boring (to me) than a manuscript that starts off with nothing happening. Or starts off with the main character staring at themselves in the mirror (and hating their eyes or fixing their unruly hair or noticing their cheekbones are like their dead mother’s). Or begins with the main character waking up and looking around their surroundings (and describing them in detail, as if they’ve never seen it before, or love it so much, or hate it so much). Actually, can we just agree that manuscripts shouldn’t start at all with a character waking up? Start with something happening!
In the first pages of Bill Konigsberg’s Openly Straight, the main character Rafe is being dropped off at his “new home.” His dad is trying to take a picture of him with his iPhone and he tells Rafe to do some silly things for the camera and Rafe is making fun of that (to us). It’s not like a volcano has erupted, but there’s some action. In the first pages of Damien Walters Grintalis’ Ink, the strange man who is “being William” walks with a bizarre gait down a street in Baltimore and goes into a nondescript shop, while singing a song. Again, it’s not a car crash or a murder, but something is happening. And both of these first pages also set up some questions. In Openly Straight we want to find out where they are, why’s his dad dropping him off… In Ink, we want to find out what it exactly means that this guy is, “being William,” as well as find out why “he was ash and cinder, pain and sorrow, and always clever.” Good golly, what does that mean?! I don’t know about you, but I want to find out.
In those first pages you need your readers to engage with your characters in a particular way. You need to make your readers care. In Openly Straight we start to care about what’s going to happen right away when we learn that Rafe’s an out, gay kid who lives in Boulder and didn’t get picked on or anything, but when he looks in the mirror all he sees is “GAY GAY GAY RAFE GAY GAY GAY” (which takes up about half of page 3 BTW) and Rafe wants a do-over. He wants to go to a school where nobody knows anything about him and he’s gone ahead and moved across the country to do that. Hmmmm… this is one. nice. setup. I mean, we know shit’s going to happen at the school! And we’re only on page 3, and the voice is funny and a little sarcastic, yet kind of sweet. So, BAM! Engaged.
In Ink, after meeting that strange man in a one page chapter 1, we jump to chapter 2 where we meet Jason, who’s piss drunk at a bar after his wife has left him. She’s apparently a real bitch (Jason’s word, not mine) and Jason is clearly suffering from some post-traumatic-relationship low self esteem issues. And then that strange man walks into the bar (well, he kind of rolls in, remember he’s got that weird way of walking… why is that?!). Jason dubs him Sailor, as he kind of looks like one, and his arms are covered in tattoos. They have a pleasant enough conversation, although there are hints that something is not quite right. “A cold finger of dread traced its way down Jason’s spine,” when Sailor moves his seat next to Jason’s. Ok, I don’t know about you, but I feel kind of sorry for poor Jason, who’s such a shlub, and I definitely want to know what the deal is with this Sailor. BAM! Engaged.
So, it’s not that you have to have your reader rooting for your character necessarily, but you want your reader to care about finding out what’s going to happen next, and care about the character. What’s going to happen to Rafe at his new school? Is he really not going to tell anyone he’s gay? What’s going to happen to Jason tomorrow, when he wakes up with a massive hangover? Will he still be hating on his ex wife? And is Jason going to take Sailor up on his offer, and go and get a tattoo? And if he does, then what’s going to happen? Because clearly Sailor is bad news.
So I’ve given you two things you should do: start with action and make your readers care about your characters. Here’s something you should not do: information dumping and backstory exposition. Nothing makes my eyes roll more quickly than when I’m reading a manuscript that starts off with a bunch of information about a character whom I hardly know or care about yet, or gives me all the whys and wherefores explaining their situation or personality. Leave off all that nonsense. Weave your backstory and explanations into the weft and warp of your story. Info dumping is boring. Backstory is telling, telling, telling when you should be focused on showing your story. And let me assure you, those things do not belong in your first pages, no matter what you may think.
First pages need to grab your reader, whether that reader is a literary agent to whom you’re querying, an editor to whom your agent is submitting, or someone choosing your book off the shelf in the bookstore. Any questions?