As part of his research for Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at Page One and Never Lets Them Go, Les Edgerton surveyed several editors and agents about problems with manuscript beginnings:
When it comes to selling your book, the most important words you’ll ever write are those on page one. Unless you grab our attention immediately, your book has no chance. Countless writers have told me (often vehemently) that their book gains power as it goes along, that it really gets exciting once a reader gets into it, so please give it the chance it deserves. That will never happen and you just have to accept it. If you want to interest us, you’ve got to do it on page one.
Never open with scenery! Novels are about people, about the human condition. That’s why we read them. Yet writer after writer starts off with descriptions of cities, towns, streets, forests, mountains, oceans, etc. Of course I know why. They’ve learned how to describe landscapes in language that seems literary, and hope we’ll be impressed. We are not. We are looking for life.
We see two fairly common mistakes. The first is the beginning that isn’t really a beginning of the story but is simply the backstory or static introduction of the character. These openings usually consist of multiple pages of narrative, none of which move the story forward or get it started. Sometimes they even go backwards--“As John looked out over the vast expanse of wilderness, he thought back to how he had gotten there. Two years earlier he had…”
The other mistake is the effort to hook the reader with something exciting that turns out to have nothing whatsoever to do with the story. Explosions and murders can be exciting, but if they don’t get the current story started, leave them out.
Not clearly identifying a point-of-view character’s particulars. I need to know fairly soon, in the first few paragraphs, if the narrator or viewpoint character is male or female, young or old, sophisticated or innocent. The fallback assumption from the reader is that the sex of the viewpoint character is the same as that of the writer; if it’s going to be different, the reader needs to know right away.
After that, too many would-be writers assume an interest in what’s going on from the reader they haven’t earned yet. I can’t be interested in a character crying or a character in peril if I don’t know that character yet.
The story should begin on the first page, but often it doesn’t, so there is no reason to read on. Give us a reason to turn that page. Never ever start with weather, dreams, setup, or a passive scene that takes the reader nowhere.
Opening statically, not dynamically. Description of just about anything instead of movement. Opening with the weather, a dream, a prologue with a character running the day s/he got involved with whatever.
Anonymous Senior Editor, Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Every bad beginning is bad in its own special way.
Front-loading of information. Too much tell, not enough show.
Writers tend to begin with the backstory and also overload the reader with details and descriptions of the characters.
Thanks to Leslie Davis Guccione for passing this along to me.