From author Janice Hardy via Anne R. Allen’s Blog:
The first page of your manuscript is critical for more than just grabbing an agent’s or editor’s attention. Readers often read the first page or two to determine whether or not to read the novel. If those pages grab them, they’ll buy the book. If not, they’ll put it back on the shelf. That’s a lot of pressure for 250 words.
Which is why those words need to capture the reader.
Common writing advice will tell you to “start with action,” but that doesn’t mean blow up a car or rob a bank—and this can actually hurt your opening not help if it.
What it really means is to start with something going on. It can be something going wrong, (my personal favorite), something revealed, something denied, something craved—the list is endless. But no matter what shape this “something” takes, there’s a sense that things are about to happen, and that it won’t be good for someone.
This sense of anticipation creates questions readers will want answers to. Why are the characters casing that playground? Who is that woman following them? What’s the deal with these two people arguing way too loudly?
However, one question you want to avoid is, “What’s going on?” A vague opening that confuses is not the type of question you want readers asking. They should be able to guess what’s going on, even if they’re not yet sure what it all means.
. . . .
Here are four common mistakes to avoid when crafting your open scene:
1. Having too much backstory and explanation.
Until the reader knows and cares about the characters, they don’t want to know the history of the world or the backstory of the protagonist.
They want to see a character with a problem and be drawn in by that story question.
Too much information can slow a story down and overwhelm a reader. If it’s too much work to read, they won’t read it.
Think of it like this: you walk into a party and some guy comes up to you and starts telling you all about his grandmother and how important she was to him, and how that’s affecting his current decision on whether or not to move to Baltimore and take this job he’s not sure s the right position for him. Are you intrigued? Odds are you’re looking for any excuse to get away from this bore.
To fix: Cut the backstory and look for ways to show how that backstory affects your character in that scene (If it doesn’t, that’s a big clue you don’t need to mention it at all). If it’s critical to know the protagonist is scared of dogs, don’t stop the story to explain how he was bitten when he was five, show him seeing a dog and being too scared to move.
Link to the rest at Anne R. Allen’s Blog