One Thing Every Reader Wants to See
A manuscript arrives in the All Due Respect inbox. It sits there for some time.
Might be a day, might be a week, might be an hour.
At some point, usually in the morning with a thermos of coffee, I open the manuscript.
There’s one thing I’m looking for from the first sentence.
I’m looking for conflict.
You may have heard this a hundred times, but there’s a reason for that: It’s easy to forget about conflict. You might focus on any number of other things—the details of setting or how to make your protagonist more likable.
But I can tell you that editors are always looking for conflict. So are literary agents, publishers, and just average readers.
You may have a 300-page manuscript with a dynamite ending, but if you don’t establish conflict in the first 20 pages, your manuscript is unlikely to make the cut.
Open any book on the shelves of your local bookstore and you’re likely to see conflict in the first paragraph, if not the first sentence. Take this opening sentence from Lee Child’s The Hard Way:
“Jack Reacher ordered espresso, double, no peel, no cube, no china, and before it arrived at his table he saw a man’s life change forever.”
The reader knows from the first moment what this book will be about. The implied question—who is this man whose life has changed forever and how will Reacher become involved?—pushes the reader forward.
The conflict in the first few pages need not be the core of your novel’s plot. For example, one of the first novels our press published was Uncle Dust by Rob Pierce. The novel begins with Dust, a bank robber, discovering he is missing two hundred dollars. Dust goes on a mission to find the money, roughly interrogating his girlfriend and her kid.
The protagonist wants something and other characters are in his way. It doesn’t matter that it’s a small amount; he will not stand losing the money. This is a small conflict setting up a larger conflict that also tells the reader a bit about Dust’s character.
It’s possible an editor or agent will continue reading past page 20 if you have an engaging voice or a fascinating character.
It’s much more likely they will continue reading because you’ve established conflict.
Chris Rhatigan is a freelance editor and co-publisher of All Due Respect Books.