Today’s letter answers an author-submitted question:

Q: I recently received feedback from an agent telling me from reading the first 10 pages of my middle grade MS., she was unable to figure out what the plot was and suggested I bring that in and make it clear right away. My question is, how do you do that? (I thought the plot was obvious, but clearly it wasn’t to her.)

A: Thank you for sharing this great question! When an agent says that they can’t tell what the plot of a book is from the opening pages, I think they’re likely responding to a lack of internal or external conflict in those pages. Your opening pages may do a good job of introducing your main character’s personality, the setting, or similar details; however, it’s difficult to get a sense of where a story’s headed if there’s no conflict. Ultimately, it sounds like this agent is asking: what type of story will this be, and how can you make that clearer in the opening? 

To address this, I’d recommend first taking a close look at your current opening pages. Do your opening pages feature a clear inciting incident, such as a confrontation, a literal or figurative change in your character’s world, or a difficult choice? If not, does your main character face any literal or figurative struggles, obstacles, or uncertainties? Do readers get a sense of how your main character’s priorities will be challenged or how they might struggle to reach their goals? Are these elements representative of the larger conflicts your character faces over the course of the book? 

Another way to think of this: how would you describe your book in one sentence to someone who hasn’t read it? Think of the descriptions you might use to convince a child reader to give your story a chance. Compelling story descriptions often focus on the core conflict—challenges the main character faces, how the main character is thrust into unexpected circumstances, etc. Are the core elements you’d use to describe your story present in your opening pages?

If your opening pages already feature any of these elements, look for ways to clarify, expand, or introduce them earlier. Perhaps there’s a moment of confrontation, but it’s currently lacking tension. Maybe the stakes of your character’s choices aren’t clear to readers. Or maybe the conflict doesn’t appear until page nine or ten, limiting its impact on the sample material. 

Generally, the shorter the book, the earlier a sense of conflict needs to be introduced. For example, picture books often introduce the core conflict within the first few lines; chapter books often introduce the core conflict within the first few pages; and so on. As an example, take a look at the first lines mentioned in this post about voice. What do they communicate about each story’s core conflict and how the central character may or may not be prepared to face it?

If your current opening pages lack conflict, then you have two options: look for ways to infuse more conflict in the existing scene, or start with a different scene that will allow you to introduce the core conflict more seamlessly.

For further examples, try reading the first ten pages of other books in your category and genre. Read these pages like a writer, unpacking them for techniques that you can apply to your own work. How does the opening scene introduce the story’s core conflict? How does the author balance action, description, and dialogue? How much backstory is included? How does the opening convey what is at stake? How does the author convey the main character’s priorities, strengths, or weaknesses?

Take these lines from the opening pages of two books on the 2022 National Book Awards Longlist for Young People’s Literature:

The pies were fake, but my grandparents didn’t know that. Not at first, anyway. My mother had invited them to watch her work on a Tasty Flaky Pie Crust commercial. . . . Oma’s hug felt awkward partly because of the neck pillow and because, even though I was eight years old, it was the first time I’d met her in person. . . . My mom and I talk about almost everything, but when it comes to her relationship with her parents, that’s a different story.

Maizy Chen’s Last Chance by Lisa Yee

Lisa Yee opens her novel with a brief scene that immerses readers in the story’s core action—even though it takes place three years before the rest of the novel. From the opening lines, readers know that the conflict in this story will center on family and food. It’s immediately clear that Maizy feels stuck in the middle between her mom and grandparents, for reasons she doesn’t yet fully understand. This establishes a sense of mystery and intrigue for readers, who will likewise wonder what happened in the past. The stakes of the opening scenes are further heightened by the fact that Maizy hasn’t met her grandparents before.

When I look back, I can’t help thinking that maybe I could have prepared for what was coming. But of course, how could I? Which led me to this moment. This place. Feeling the eyes of the whole town on me. Violin tucked against my chin. Bow hand trembling. . . . All I ever wanted to do was play my music and be free to express myself. Yet, somehow, here I was. What sparked the revolution? Would you believe it all started with my bodacious afro? And a paper airplane.

Lotus Bloom and the Afro Revolution by Sherri Winston

Like Lisa Yee, Sherri Winston includes a brief opening scene before the main story begins that establishes tension and intrigue. Unlike Maizy Chen’s Last ChanceLotus Bloom and the Afro Revolution starts with a flash forward. This active opening scene gives readers a sense of how the conflict introduced in the first chapter—Lotus Bloom’s worries about going to a new school, being separated from her best friend, and proving that she’s good enough for the school’s music program—builds to a decisive climax over the course of a book. From the opening pages, Sherri Winston not only introduces Lotus Bloom’s compelling perspective to readers, but also ensures that readers understand the story’s central conflict and stakes.

Openings are notoriously tricky, so don’t be afraid to try out a few different options until you find the right balance of conflict, character, and setting. You might also find the suggestions in this previous post about openings helpful. Good luck!

Your Editor Friend,

Julie

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