The 6 Key Elements Agents Want in Your Story's Start

editing honing the craft publishing querying revising revision tips and tricks Jun 08, 2021
Post written by Katie Wall.
 
If your aim as a writer is traditional publishing, then you (probably) know that, after your manuscript is polished and ready to go, you need to get an agent.
 
The query process requires creating and polishing a query letter and synopsis, researching agents, and following each agent's submission instructions to the letter.
 
But what is it that agents are actually looking for in your story's beginning pages?
 
According to literary agent Sandra O'Donnell in her book, Your First Fifteen Pages, there are 6 key elements agents look for when they read sample pages:
  1. What the story is about.
  2. Who the main characters are.
  3. Why the reader should care about the characters.
  4. What the point of the story is.
  5. Where the story is set.
  6. What the timeframe is for the story.
It's amazing how many times I've read beginning pages that are missing some of these elements. Some of my clients explain that they didn't want to give things away "too soon," that they were hoping some mystery would keep their readers turning the pages.
 
While this thought has good intentions behind it—the desire to keep readers engaged—the problem is that leaving out this information (or not presenting it clearly) only hurts the reader experience. How? Because if a reader doesn't have a good sense of any of these items, they are not able to connect well with the protagonist, the story, or the world the story is set in.
 
And agents are no different. In fact, agents may give the first pages of a manuscript less of a chance than the average reader—if average readers might hang on for the first fifty pages, agents are often looking at much shorter samples to assess whether or not they want to go further. Their time is so limited to get through the massive amount of queries they receive that they literally do not have time to give your manuscript fifty pages to finally get around to presenting the conflict.
 
O'Donnell says to think about your query as a job interview. You want to present all of the pertinent information in a clear, logical, and easy to follow way for your interviewer... erm, the agent you're querying. If your query letter and synopsis aren't clear, they probably won't bother reading your sample. And if your sample doesn't give them a good sense of your story by addressing those six key elements listed above, then they're going to move on and look for a manuscript that does.
 
So, take a look at your story's start. Are those six elements present? Think about what is on the page versus what you think is on the page. This can be hard to do as the author, and it's exactly why I offer a First Pages Evaluation service. Let's get your story's start in great shape so you can ace that interview!

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