First 250 Dos and Don’ts

With QueryKombat right around the corner (and PitchWars coming up soon after that), here’s a glimpse into things I do (and do not) want to see on your first page.

Do: Show us your character’s awesome voice. I want it to sound like they’re talking to me directly (without them actually breaking the fourth wall and talking to me directly).

Don’t: Introduce all of your characters at once. I know they’re all awesome characters and you love them and want to show us everyone, but dropping your reader into a party scene with seventeen different people can be super confusing (and if it’s not first person, I may have no idea who your main character is).

Do: Introduce me to your world. Whether that’s a sci-fi world with dragons or a contemporary world or your main character lives in a shoe, give me some sense of it. I don’t need an entire 250 words of description, but some hints as to where I am are nice.

Don’t: Shove the first 10, 15, or 30 years of your main character’s life into the first 250 words. There’s a time and a place for backstory, but that place isn’t on the first page.

Do: Review the rules on dialogue tags, beats, and punctuation. This is an area where I see a lot of mistakes.

Don’t: Start with a prologue. We want to see what’s happening in the story now, not what happened years ago or what happens later. A lot of agents shy away from stories primarily told in flashback.

Do: Spell check, grammar check, ask a friend to read. A mistake on the first page could be the difference between a “YES!!” and a “maybe” or a “maybe” and a “no.”

Don’t: Drop me into the middle of the action without any grounding in the scene. It’s good to have things happening on the first page, but a sentence or two at the beginning will orient your reader. Let me know who the main character is and show me why I want to root for them. Just don’t give me three paragraphs of purple prose that leave me with no idea what your story’s about.

Do: Let me know who’s talking and who the main character is before dropping me into dialogue.

Don’t: Use common, overdone opening scenes – character waking up, character describing herself in a mirror (I’ve never seen this done with a male protagonist, but don’t do that, either), character in mortal peril, waking up for a dream, opening with weather, etc. There are dozens of lists out there of openings to avoid. Here’s what literary agents have to say.

Do: Give me a reason to want to keep reading. Try to end the first page in a hook that makes me desperate to read page two.

What about you? What are your best tips for the first page? Tell me in the comments.

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