The Literary Consultancy’s Aki Schilz looks at what writers can do to make the opening pages of their novel grab a reader’s attention.

The Crucial Opening Pages of a Novel: The Truth Behind those Top Tips

By Aki Schilz, Director, The Literary Consultancy

At TLC, we process somewhere between 500 and 700 manuscripts per year, across a range of genres, styles and formats, from fiction and non-fiction to short stories, scripts, screenplays, and poetry. The most common of our submission categories (for manuscript assessment by one of our 90 professional editors) is fiction. As TLC is supporting the Bridport's First Novel Award alongside literary agency AM Heath, I thought it apt to home in on novel-writing to see if I could offer something up that might support writers in their submission, to this or to other competitions, and even beyond that, to agents and publishers.

Hook 'em hard, hook 'em quick

This is well-trodden ground, but let's start at the beginning. Why is it so important that the opening pages are absolutely as good as they can be? It seems an obvious question, with an obvious answer, but I do still get clients coming to me with caveats; yes, I know the first 15,000 words are important but really, trust me, my story really gets going by around the 50-page mark - how can I convince an agent to read the whole thing? And my question is always a rather bemused, are you sure you've started in the right place? A busy agent or, more likely, assistant or intern, will receive an incredibly high volume of submissions (an agent friend of mine receives an astonishing 4,000 per year). They'll need to make very quick judgments about incoming work and often this will be based on the first few pages alone. So how do you 'hook' an agent in a way that eventually you want to 'hook'  your readers?

There are no tricks, and no hard and fast rules other than write.

This doesn't mean that your raw talent will speak for itself, to hell with writing adages because you are guided by muses and moonlight alone.

Let's take a look at some of the 'rules' that get touted about and try to see what they might mean.

'Show Don't Tell'

Let's start with a golden oldie. Mostly, this one holds true. As Chekhov said, 'Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.' Decide when it's best to show us things happening directly: through dialogue, or action, for instance, to demonstrate something about a character rather than simply telling us what their personality traits are. 'He's a jealous man' works so much more wonderfully in a scene that shows Raoul to be a jealous partner than put baldly in a neat little paragraph that also tells us he has hair/eyes/muscles this or that [insert clichéd metaphor/simile here]. But you also need to know when to pan out, and feed in some more instructive text; when to step in, subtly, as the author, or to cut efficiently to a new scene instead of dragging your camera along with you everywhere you go. Sometimes, you do need to tell us things. We need orientating, as readers.

'Kill ALL your darlings'

All of them? Wouldn't that leave just the boring bits? I have to say, whenever I hear an editor or agent or writing tutor making a speech and giving 'top tips' and I hear the imperious words 'Cut out all adjectives and adverbs', I wince. Writing needs them. It becomes joyless and airless without them. Lego writing. Clean and shiny and square. BUT, you can assess what your natural style is and decide: do you write best in snappy, 'sparse' prose? Or are you good at the well-turned metaphor, the multi-claused meandering beloved of literary stylists? Can you mix it up? Vary sentence length, mix in the mundane with the glorious, help the pacing and tension with the right rhythms of speech. Is the writing suited to what's happening in the scene? If the prose is getting a bit bogged down, is it because those adjectives are unnecessary (if so, absolutely: cut them) or is it because they're rather well-worn and tending into cliché (hence, purple: not all detailed prose is purple!). Don't let your reader's eyes glaze over. Stun them with crispness, or bedazzle them with literary gorgeousness. Either way you go, make your words earn their keep.

'Start in medias res ALWAYS'

I recently found an article here that describes with far more eloquence than I can manage precisely why this maxim is so problematic. Often, writers will misinterpret this rule and transmogrify it into 'start with action!'. The result is a proliferation of first-time novelists opening their novels with a dramatic scene that feels disconnected from the narrative thrust of the rest of the book, precisely because it's been added in only for dramatic effect. Jeff has said everything that needs saying on the matter in the article linked here but the essence of it is this: start engagingly, draw the reader in. This can be with your language (and yes, it can be slow! If the writing is powerful and precise, you don't need a helicopter to crash to get someone to read on), a compelling voice, a snappy bit of dialogue, an open-ended question that neatly sums up something central about the novel, or even, yes, if well-written and not arbitrary, A Dramatic Incident.

'Never use a Prologue'

OK, so this is a tricky one. Prologues on the whole are difficult because writers rarely get them right. For competition entry, when working within a limited word count, they can cut into the time you need to set your story up, leaving judges with a prologue and then half a chapter that doesn't give enough sense of the book. Think too about when you wrote your prologue. If you wrote it early on in the drafting process, because you were missing some essential set-up details, then later wove these into your opening chapters, try taking it out now and seeing if the text stands alone. If it doesn't, you may have a plot problem. I for one don't mind prologues, but they need to be compelling, and their resonance felt through the chapters until BANG! their relevance is revealed and everything crashes into place beautifully, or tragically, or in some way that makes my heart stop.


Finding your voice

These are just a few 'writing rules' I think it's handy to interrogate. Give them a nudge. Push them and see what happens. Because that's what you have to do with your writing; push yourself, and it, to see what comes loose and what refuses to budge. You'll be a better writer for it in the long run, with a better sense of why you write, which will help you work out what you write. I respect writing rules, and there are plenty I return to again and again. But I also think there's value in knowing when to say, actually, I'm not sure this applies: what would happen if I did this? Be brave. Experiment. Sure, you'll get it wrong sometimes, but talent is a muscle; it will waste with under-use and can only be strengthened by practice. It's the only way to find what agents and publishers are all looking for: that truly original, unmistakable, this-can-be-no-one-else voice. We've struck lucky with our previous winners, Caroline Chisholm and Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott, both of whom had this. A voice that pulled us in. A voice that was unmistakable. I am excited to find another this year.

I wish all of you the best of luck in finding yours.



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