Purple Prose + Writing

How to Get a Rocking Beginning

When it comes to grabbing the reader’s attention, a great first page is vital. With agents, if they don’t make it past the first page, well, you know what happens.

With my current WIP (YA contemporary), I knew there was something not quite right about the beginning. But I couldn’t put my finger on it. It had voice, but there was no real connection with the main character. I knew it needed something more, but what?

Then I heard that agents Joanna Volpe and Suzie Townsend are critiquing the first 250 words of volunteers’ novels and posting the feedback on their blog, Confessions From Suite 500. The one rule: You have to study the first page of several novels from your genre. Great. That sounded simple enough.

Four hours later, and a huge stack of novels on my floor, I had studied the first two paragraphs of 38 YA contemporary novels, 15 YA paranormal novels, and 16 winning YA entries from past MSFV Secret agent contests. I compiled the data into tables (did I tell you I’m analytical?) and indicated which first two paragraphs hooked me. Based on the results, I came to this startling conclusion:

The first two paragraphs that made me want to read more involved a combination of introspection and action.

When I say action, I’m talking maybe a sentence or two just to break up the introspection, and it wasn’t big action. And, of course, the introspection wasn’t rambling or long. It got to the point within the first paragraph and was loaded with voice.

My findings also supported what Donald Maass wrote in his Writing The Breakout Novel Workbook. In his workshops , he has the participants read their first lines. After each line is read, the participants put up their hand if they would keep reading:

“Weather effects, descriptions, and scene setting never get a strong response. Neither does plain action—unless there is something puzzling about it. The best first lines make us lean forward, wondering, What the heck does that mean?

Now remember, these results are based on the beginnings that hooked me. Try this exercise for yourself and see what kinds of openings appeal to you the most. You might be surprised.

(Edit: I've had requests for me to publish the tables. Just click on this link if you want to see them.)

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How to Get a Rocking Beginning + Writing