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On my blog, Flogging the Quill, I critique (“flog”) the opening pages of novels submitted by wannabe novelists. I think it’s equally instructive to flog the pros. Fifty Shades of Grey was suggested, but I can’t find an ebook sample to download to extract the first page. So we turn to the second novel suggested.

The challenge: does the first page compel you to turn the page?

Storytelling Checklist

When you critique this opening page, consider these 6 vital storytelling elements. While it’s not a requirement that all of them must be on the first page, they can be, and I think writers have the best chance of hooking a reader if they are.

Evaluate the opening narrative in terms of how well it executes the elements. The one vital ingredient not listed is professional-caliber writing because that is a given for every page.

  • Story questions
  • Tension (in the reader, not just the characters)
  • Voice
  • Clarity
  • Scene-setting
  • Character

Editors and literary agents see so many submissions from “new” writers that they often make their read/not-read decision on the first page. In a customarily formatted book manuscript with chapters starting about 1/3 of the way down the page (double-spaced, 1-inch margins, 12-point type), there are 16 or 17 lines on the first page.

Let’s Flog The DaVinci Code by Dan Brown

Following is what would be the first manuscript page of The DaVinci Code I don’t have to tell you what a gigantic seller it was.

Louvre Museum, Paris

10:46 P.M.

Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery. He lunged for the nearest painting he could see, a Caravaggio. Grabbing the gilded frame, the seventy-six-year-old man heaved the masterpiece toward himself until it tore from the wall and Saunière collapsed backward in a heap beneath the canvas.

As he had anticipated, a thundering iron gate fell nearby, barricading the entrance to the suite. The parquet floor shook. Far off, an alarm began to ring.

The curator lay a moment, gasping for breath, taking stock. I am still alive. He crawled out from under the canvas and scanned the cavernous space for someplace to hide.

A voice spoke, chillingly close. “Do not move.”

On his hands and knees, the curator froze, turning his head slowly.

Only fifteen feet away, outside the sealed gate, the mountainous silhouette of his attacker stared through the iron bars. He was broad and tall, with ghost-pale skin and thinning white hair. His irises were pink with dark red pupils. The albino drew a pistol from his coat and aimed the barrel through the bars, directly at the curator. “You should not have run.” His accent was not easy to place. “Now tell me where it is.”

“I told you already,” the curator stammered, kneeling defenseless on the floor of the (snip)

My vote: yes

It’s a tense action scene, someone is in trouble, and there’s a scary guy about to be violent. The locale is exotic and appealing as well. So strong story questions are raised, and I wanted to know what happened next. But I think the writing has shortcomings—clarity and crispness, in particular. For my money, action scenes should move, and there is some overwriting here. Editorial notes:

Louvre Museum, Paris

10:46 P.M.

Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery. He lunged for the nearest painting he could see, a Caravaggio. Grabbing the gilded frame, the seventy-six-year-old man heaved the masterpiece toward himself until it tore from the wall and Saunière he collapsed backward in a heap beneath the canvas. For me, this is a fairly clumsy info dump combined with some interesting set-up. “Renowned” is certainly “telling,” as is the statement of his age. I thought “heaved the masterpiece toward himself “ was a strange way to try to picture a man tearing a painting from a wall. Seems like that involves pulling and yanking, not heaving, which implies lifting. And do people really fall in a heap? Think about it; if you pulled a painting off a wall and fell violently backward, you’d land on your back, flat. Moreover, it would have been nice to show us the size of the painting. He ends up beneath it, but I don’t get a clear picture.

As he had anticipated, a thundering iron gate fell nearby, barricading the entrance to the suite. The parquet floor shook. Far off, an alarm began to ring rang. A “thundering” gate? Gates thunder? How about: …an iron gate thundered down, barricading…etc.

The curator lay a moment, gasping for breath, taking stock. I am still alive. He crawled out from under the canvas and scanned the cavernous space for someplace to hide. Again, just how large is this painting?

DaVinci Code coverA voice spoke, chillingly close. “Do not move.”

On his hands and knees, tThe curator froze, turning his head slowly. He is crawling, so we already know he’s on his hands and knees. Overwriting.

Only f Fifteen feet away, outside the sealed gate, the mountainous silhouette of his attacker stared through the iron bars. He was broad and tall, with ghost-pale skin and thinning white hair. His irises were pink with dark red pupils. The albino drew a pistol from his coat and aimed the barrel through the bars, directly at the curator. “You should not have run.” His accent was not easy to place. “Now tell me where it is.” Oh, my. Can a silhouette actually stare? I don’t think so. More than that, a silhouette is “the outlines of an object filled in with black.” In other words, a black shape. So how is it possible that we also see pale skin, white hair, pink irises and red pupils? He “aimed the barrel through the bars” is overwriting—what else to you aim with a gun?

“I told you already,” the curator stammered, kneeling defenseless on the floor of the (snip) We already pretty much know that he’s helpless, we don’t need to be told.

In addition, the point of view hops around—we’re omniscient when the narrative refers to “the curator,” but in close third person when things like “the accent was not easy to place,” which is from Saunière’s point of view. Clumsy, IMO.

What do you think ?

Nominations wanted: Suggest novels for the Flog the Pro feature in Comments. If it’s used, it could be fun to see what the WU audience thinks.

If you’d like to help beginning novelists with your constructive criticism, join me on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at my site, Flogging the Quill.

About Ray Rhamey

Ray Rhamey is the author of five novels and one craft book, Flogging the Quill, Crafting a Novel that Sells. He's also an editor who has recently expanded his creative services to include book cover and interior design. His website, crrreative.com, offers an a la carte menu of creative services for self-publishers and Indie authors. Learn more about Ray's fiction at rayrhamey.com.