Tag Archives: backstory

“First-Pages” Problems

l_b706fe80-deaa-11e1-8e83-cf6193d00005If you’re consistently receiving feed back from literary agents saying something along the lines of, “Well, I really like the hook/idea but I’m not connecting to the writing, so I’m sorry but this is a pass,” then you have a “first-pages” problem. While the rejection could be a matter of taste from that agent, or a disconnect with the “voice” of your writing, it’s more than likely a common “first-pages” problem, and there are lots of those.

Here are the common problems of first pages I spot consistently:

  1. You started in the wrong place. You have to get to the inciting incident or the turning point in your character’s life that puts him/her on the main path of your plot fast, in the first chapter. If that turning point happens in chapter 3, start in chapter 3 instead. Your first two chapters are probably backstory, which leads me to #2.
  2. cb138b2a5c501e5398583db28fd16bef--writing-humor-writing-quotesYour first chapter mostly consists of backstory. You as a writer consider the backstory important because you’ve used it to frame your story or construct your character’s world (that’s world building) and develop the qualities and peculiarities of your characters (that’s characterization), but backstory should be sprinkled throughout your entire book, never dumped on the reader. I’m sure you’ve heard this before: BEWARE the dreaded info dump of backstory. NEVER DO THAT. This is where you the writer find it necessary to reveal the minutia of your character’s lives to us that has NOTHING to do with advancing the plot. So, please never have your character in Chapter 1 just doing some mundane activity like riding a bike, washing dishes, etc., any activity where they are basically just sitting around thinking about stuff. Because the stuff they are usually thinking about is the backstory. GET TO THE ACTION.
  3. Nothing happens. No conflict. Plot has to be occurring. So whatever happens to your main character to motivate them to deal with the conflict around which your story is built, whatever this turning point in their life is that literally shifts them from their ho-hum existence to the tension-filled new “path of plot” the reader wants to spend their Saturday night devouring, it better happen in the first chapter. Do not leave characters idle. Do not write a scene, especially in the first chapter, that does not introduce or advance the story problem/plot. LISTEN THOUGH, I’m not saying you have to start with a gun battle. Start with a bang doesn’t literally mean that. Yes, action’s great, but I still like having a reason to care first. So some context is nice. There are ways to create some character depth without giving us their life story in an info dump.
  4. You used a prologue. (#’s 1-4 are almost alike. See a theme here!) This is akin to backstory. MOST AGENTS do not like them. Skip them. Start your plot MOVING from page one. No backstory. No boring situations. Prologues tend to be giant excuses to dump backstory on us.
  5. 7b63c3026e762392e6758e1dc8fcd60b--writer-quotes-writing-motivation-quotesBeware purple prose. Basically this is trying to make everything sound elaborate and ornate. That means adjectives and adverbs everywhere instead of proper showing. So if your sentence is: The ADJECTIVE ADJECTIVE girl ran ADVERB through the ADJECTIVE ADJECTIVE forest, her ADJECTIVE heart hammering ADVERB as the band of ADJECTIVE men dreamed ADJECTIVE … just no…
  6. You may lack a balance of dialog, narration and action.
    Every book consists:

    1. dialog: characters talking,
    2. action or beats: people doing things, and
    3. narration- commentary or what is told to us from a certain point of view. The POV is who is telling it, so 1st person vs 3rd person offer slightly different narrative perspectives.
    4. SO… If you say, have tons of dialog all in a row with no break to show us what your character is doing (action) or narration (to help us understand how they are feeling or their motivations), then it gets rather boring and feels unbalanced. You need to balance all three of these so there is a proper rhythm to the writing and you engender a proper feeling of engagement in the scene from the reader. We need all three to feel immersed. Try the “read aloud” test to see if you feel or hear this balance.
  7. You feature so much exposition to set the scene it’s too much. While you do have to create some atmosphere, don’t make that your focus. Balance again.become-a-writer
  8. You start with cliches,
    • Waking up,
    • Or worse you let us go through an entire chapter thinking something’s happening in reality and THEN they wake up. Proper fake out. YUCK.
    • A weird, purple-y prose or confusing (meant-to-be mysterious or uber-cool) opening sentence that comes off sounding you know just … nope. 
    • Talking about the weather.
    • Sexually explicit first sentences or worse add murder+sexually explicit.
    • A character checking themselves out in the mirror to describe themselves. (Yes, Divergent did this and it worked…. I know.)
    • Characters just hanging out thinking.
    • Character giving tours of their space/home/etc.
    • There are lots, please feel free to Google them. Yes, sometimes there are exceptions if done well, ahem, Divergent
  9. Your characters seem boring. Fictional characters are larger than life. That’s why we want to read about them. I don’t want to spend an entire novel reading about your aunt who is 60 and likes to watch House Hunters figuring out who killed the red hat lady. (I wouldn’t want to read about me trying to figure out who killed the red hat lady!) Now if your aunt is a 60-year-old southern lady in Texas that used to chain smoke, then quit and now pops tic tacs all day, and is mildly grumpy in the cutest of ways because of her lack of nicotine, while throwing out southern colloquialisms and constant one-liners and has the ability to make the local sheriff sound like an idiot at key moments and run circles around him to solve the murder of the local red hat lady, then I’m all ears.
  10. Your first chapter does not have it’s own arc. You need rising and falling action in the first chapter. Each chapter should be a mini arc.
  11. You have a weird opening. No first line of overtly sexual dialog, No My name is …, Once upon a time…, No purple prose first line, No nauseous or main characters vomiting (you won’t believe how many people think that watching your main character feel sick or get sick in the first paragraph is somehow relatable).
  12. Make your main character relatable and make me care about them— or if you feel you must have a sucky protagonist (not the best idea for a debut writer), make them immediately seem redeemable, at the very least. People don’t generally want to read about people they don’t like for 300 pages. But they do want to read about RELATABLE, LIKEABLE characters. BUT, Not only do I want to like them, they have to give me a reason to make me care what happens to them or those around them affected by the story problem.
  13. You have to give me stakes to care about. Stakes are the reason your story matters and the reason your protagonist is willing to deal with the conflict around which your story is built. Stakes are what’s at risk for your character. Stakes are something that can be gained or lost. And stakes, maybe most importantly, give your reader something to care about. SHOW ME THOSE IN CHAPTER 1.
  14. In romance, the hero and heroine don’t meet for a few chapters. They need to meet in Chapter 1.
  15. You opened with a rape scene in christian fiction.
  16. Too much telling vs. showinggeorge-mcfly
  17. You mixed tenses and POV. You must remain consistent in your tense and only switch POV’s in different chapters or after section breaks if multiple POV. Keep tense the same though. Ex of mixed tenses) We wanted (past tense) to make it work, but she feels (present tense) like it’s not going to happen. So, she is moving (progressive present tense) out and I stayed (past tense) here. Doing this makes you look amateurish, and it warns of future problems later in the text.
  18. Be careful about trying to be mysterious in chapter 1, it can come off as confusing.
  19. Don’t tie things up so neatly at the end of chapter 1. You need to leave breadcrumbs at the end of every chapter to keep the reader engaged and ready to jump to the next page.
  20. Voice needs work. 

Please share in the comments any additional first-pages problems you’ve identified! Thanks!


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Want to bore an agent? Do this.

Welcome to the universe of 30-second commercials, 140-character tweets and 35-word contest pitches. Welcome to the land of short attention spans and brains trained to be wowed in under a minute. And finally, welcome to writing for this generation.

Having worked as a nonprofit magazine editor and communications specialist, I’ve written and edited professionally for years, and now that I’m working at a literary agency, I’ve read my fair share of those dreaded queries too. So, I’m writing today to help promising authors get their shot by avoiding a common problem that keeps landing in my inbox – a great concept and well-written prose that ultimately avalanches from those promising shimmers of first snowy words into a snooze-fest of backstory and completely unnecessary info dumps. It’s just too much people. Really. You’ve got to get to the point faster. You’ve got so little time.

Discovering an info dump or backstory in a first chapter is like sledding on fresh powder only to collide into a block of near-frozen snow. It stops you in your tracks. I ask: Why hide the inciting first incident of the story – the snow jump that sends agents flying into the next 100 pages – behind such a mess?  Why does the backstory, this info dump of information, always hide only a page into the first chapter? Why does it feel so necessary to the author that they give up the prime real estate of the first 500 words an agent reads to it?

The reason is pretty simple, but that doesn’t make it any less easy to avoid. Backstory is hugely important to the author because they’ve used it to frame or construct their world (that’s world building) and develop the qualities and peculiarities of their characters (characterization). They want you to know everything up front to help you make sense of their world. But – and this is the part that should scare the snow pants right off you authors – your reader could probably care less. Well, that’s a slight overstatement. They do care, but they don’t want to know everything at once – especially when they have no clue or investment in your characters as of yet. They need something to root for first. That inciting first incident.

So, let’s switch metaphors. Now consider your manuscript a tapestry of beautiful stitching. You can only use a small bolt of your favorite gold, shimmering thread in the whole thing, but you’ve got a host of other colors to work with too. You’ve guessed it – the gold is your backstory, sitting so pretty, able to add so much depth and light if used correctly. But, whatever you do, don’t use it all at once or it just becomes a blob of gold stuck in one small eye-drawing corner. But, if you thread it carefully through the tapestry, you can add depth, light and beauty that makes sense but doesn’t overwhelm.

The best reason, however, for avoiding this info dump is you get to the point faster – you know – that point where your desired agent goes, “a ha, this is why I do this for a living.” And in this land of sound bites and crunched sentences, you need to hook your reader (and your agent) fast. Whether physical or emotional in nature – an inciting first scenes begs the reader to, well, keep reading. It’s this blend of marketable, hot-right-now concept + craft + keep-me-wanting-to-read-more pages + personal taste that gets authors the sought-after request for more pages. That’s a lot of factors that you, the author, control. 

So, is there a checklist you can follow to make your manuscript an incredible piece of literature? Not really, no. But there are definitely things you should be aware of as you write. For the time being, think about one of them: the way you start. And if the start bores with backstory, consider if you haven’t already written a better beginning just a few chapters in. Maybe that’s where your story should begin?


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