Flog a Pro: Inferno by Dan Brown

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Trained by reading hundreds of submissions, editors and agents 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.

The challenge: does this narrative compel you to turn the page?

Storytelling Checklist

Evaluate this opening page for how well it executes the following 6 vital storytelling elements. While it’s not a requirement that all of them must be on the first page, I think writers have the best chance of hooking a reader if they are. The one vital ingredient not listed is professional-caliber writing, a given for every page.

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

Let’s Flog Inferno by Dan Brown

When I look at the opening page of a hugely successful author, I wonder how it would have fared without the big name and big sales. What would happen if the opening of this book, the prologue, was submitted to a literary agent by you or me? Following is what would be the first manuscript page (16 lines) of the Prologue in Inferno, the number 1 hardback fiction book on the July 14, 2013 New York Times bestseller list.

I am the Shade.

Through the dolent city, I flee.

Through the eternal woe, I take flight.

Along the banks of the river Arno, I scramble breathless . . . turning left onto Via dei Castellani, making my way northward, huddling in the shadows of the Uffizi.

And still they pursue me.

Their footsteps grow louder now as they hunt with relentless determination.

For years they have pursued me. Their persistence has kept me underground . . . forced me to live in purgatory . . . laboring beneath the earth like a chthonic monster.

I am the Shade.

Here aboveground, I raise my eyes to the north, but I am unable to find a direct path to salvation . . . for the Apennine Mountains are blotting out the first light of dawn.

I pass behind the palazzo with its crenellated tower and one-handed clock . . . snaking through the early-morning vendors in Piazza di San Firenze with their hoarse voices smelling of lampredotto and roasted olives. Crossing before the Bargello I cut west toward the spire of the Badia and come up hard against the iron gate at the base of the stairs.

My vote and editorial notes after the fold.

My vote: Yes

InfernoThe way many literary agents say they skip prologues (Don, how about you?), I wonder if this opening would have been read. I had mixed emotions about it. The writing seemed a little over the top at times, and I was not connected with this mysterious and anonymous character. On the other hand, there is that mysterious part—enough strong story questions were raised to get me to turn the page.

The narrative is cleaner than the last one we read from Dan Brown—perhaps there’s an editor more involved.

Oh, how many of you knew what chthonic meant? I didn’t. It’s of a divinity or a spirit : dwelling or reigning in the underworld. Lampredotto is a typical Florentine peasant dish, made from the fourth and final stomach of a cow, the abomasum.

Here’s the blurb from the Amazon page. Note that the prologue give no hint of this story. Is that a good thing to do?

In the heart of Italy, Harvard professor of symbology Robert Langdon is drawn into a harrowing world centered on one of history’s most enduring and mysterious literary masterpieces . . . Dante’s Inferno.

Against this backdrop, Langdon battles a chilling adversary and grapples with an ingenious riddle that pulls him into a landscape of classic art, secret passageways, and futuristic science. Drawing from Dante’s dark epic poem, Langdon races to find answers and decide whom to trust . . . before the world is irrevocably altered.

What are your thoughts?
If you’d like to help beginning novelists with your constructive criticism, join me on Wednesdays and Fridays for floggings at my site, Flogging the Quill.

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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.

Comments

  1. says

    I’d just like to know how mountains to the north can blot out the sunrise when you’re in Italy.

    If I picked this up in a bookstore and read this opening page, the blurb would have to be pretty compelling for me to put my money down. When reading a book, I read it all, including prologues. I might (in the bookstore) skip ahead and check out the opening of chapter 1. If it looked better than this, maybe I’d go on. By itself, with nothing else to go on–no, wouldn’t read on.

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  2. says

    I would be intrigued enough to turn the page, but if it kept going on like this too long, I’d put it down for pretty much all the reasons above.

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  3. says

    Yes, it’s a good Dan Brownish, mystery opening, which for millions of readers works. It’s a chase, it has mystery, it has setting.

    I wonder why, though, the first three lines are italicized. There’s a jolt when it jumps to non-ital, and I’m all about removing “jolts” from the reading experience.

    More jolts from:

    dolent
    chthonic
    crenellated

    All words that most readers would stumble over. So why include them? If a page has more than one word that has readers thinking “Dictionary” it’s probably too many.

    I didn’t have trouble with the italicized lampredotto as that clearly indicates a local foodstuff and the reader can simply accept it as such.

    Beginnings are easy. This one starts off with the right implied promise. Whether that promise is fulfilled is a question for those who have read the whole book.

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  4. says

    With the millions Brown’s books earn couldn’t we afford a better editor? This is so overwritten that it cancels out the mystery for me, pushing me out of the story rather than drawing me in.
    The first person narrative is also poorly written and therefore the character and his voice do not ring true.

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    • says

      Totally agree about the writing. I’d only continue because I love Italy. But, ultimately, the overwriting might make me yell, “Basta!”

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  5. says

    The opening feels too “goth” to me, making me suspect it’s going to be a demonic horror fantasy of some sort. And I don’t like when a first page has more than one word I don’t know. And I’m an editor!

    The “dolent city?” Really? I had to look that up at Merriam Webster’s online, and when I did I found a whole page of comments from other people who had also looked it up–because of Inferno.

    (Bravo to Dan for increasing America’s vocabulary.)

    I am a Dan Brown fan, but if I didn’t know this was one of his books I would not turn the page. Just don’t like the voice or the creepy demonic implications.

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  6. says

    I understand that he’s trying to provide a sense-of-place, but it felt like he was rushing towards that end. Too, it may be a good mystery, but I read it—and chuckled. It read like, “I’m mysterious. I’m evil. Here, let me give you a tour of the city because I know all the tourist attractions.”

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  7. Lori Owen says

    I had a very hard time following this page of writing. It started off looking more like a poem. I found myself skimming the firs page trying to find something interesting. There was nothing. I would not read the book based on the first page.

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  8. says

    I said “no” based on these lines/first page, mostly because I didn’t feel a connection with the character being chased – the tension wasn’t there for me.

    I did like the air of mystery and the Italian setting set up in the Prologue and, if I had the book in hand, I would’ve flipped to Chapter One to see what that was like.

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  9. says

    I bet the vote would have been dramatically different had the author not been identified Dan Brown. It’s pretty undistinguished writing but when you are a huge bestseller like Brown you can get away with it.

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  10. says

    Since we do this contest “as if” the writing sample were from an unknown writer, I would read on. I would keep reading simply because, if I were a fish, I would be a bottom feeder some of the time. I have read the first twenty to forty pages of LOTS of awful books simply because they were on a bookshelf at the cottage or in a yard sale.

    I would not read on if I “knew” this was written by Dan Brown. I’ve read the first twenty pages of one of his books. It was on the shelf at the cottage.

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  11. says

    I often open up books and read the first page — thinking the same thing. Why was this published? Does it grab me? I think this is a bit too murky. I feel the suspense, but I would have to reread. I’m usually not that patient.

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  12. says

    I voted no, but in truth I read the entire book. Kinda dumb on my part because I kept expecting it to get better. My son once told me that when my name on the book cover became larger than the title, I was toast. Here is proof.

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  13. says

    “Along the banks of the river Arno, I scramble breathless . . . turning left onto Via dei Castellani, making my way northward, huddling in the shadows of the Uffizi.

    And still they pursue me.

    Their footsteps grow louder now as they hunt with relentless determination.

    For years they have pursued me. Their persistence has kept me underground . . . forced me to live in purgatory . . . laboring beneath the earth like a chthonic monster.”

    I wouyld have turn the page because of the few lines above. It had tension and intrigue, which is always tasty bait for me. The only part I didn’t really like was the phrase “I am the Shade”, but I could have easily overlooked that.

    I don’t know how the Pros do it, but I cannot connect with any character from reading the first chapter, let alone the first page.

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  14. says

    I really am on the fence about “Inferno.” This prologue does make me at least want to know what is going on, but the language is so over-dramatic, it sounds amatueurish.

    I did enjoy “The Da Vinci Code,” but after “The Lost Symbol,” swore I would not read another Dan Brown book.

    Oh, what to do, what to do????

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  15. says

    Sorry to say, I voted yes. I do not think Dan Brown’s books are well written. But ya know what? They move. At this point I didn’t care who the character was, I wanted to know who was chasing him and why and was he going to get away.

    Would I lay down money for this book? No. Would I check it out of the library? No. If it were lying there and I had nothing better to read at the moment would I continue reading? Yes.

    Who knows how long I would keep reading? Would I read to the end? I don’t know. But I read every last page of THE DA DINCI CODE, all the while thinking how badly it was written.

    I read every day. And sometimes I read books like this. Apparently, so do a lot of other people.

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  16. Ronda Roaring says

    1. I wondered about the italicized lines myself. I haven’t read Dante’s “Inferno,” so perhaps it’s from that.

    2. New words don’t bother me, and if I have to stop and look them up, I’m ok with that. I have to thank Diana Gabaldon for causing me to buy an “Oxford Universal Dictionary” and several others. If I own a printed copy of a book with lots of new words, I pencil in the meanings. I love buying these annotated books at used book sales.

    3. The city in question is Florence and the reference to the Apennines works.

    4. I probably wouldn’t buy the book, which is a “no” vote for his style, but I would listen to it as a audio book because I love most things Italian.

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  17. says

    The writing is forced and over the top. I’d give it a chance and flip to chapter One to see if the writing became more fluid. If not, I would’nt purchase it.

    MJ

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  18. Ted Duke says

    Very interesting. I would not have read the INFERNO manuscript based on those “rules”. Then I checked the poll on all of the manuscripts listed and the polls are interesting.

    Perhaps the “rules” aren’t valid?

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  19. says

    OK, let’s face it. When we pick up a Dan Brown book we expect a fast-paced story chock full of well-researched details and plenty of twists and turns. Yes, it did at times come off like a travel guide and a vomiting history tutorial, but I kind of expected that going in. What I don’t expect from Dan Brown is stellar writing, a decent romance, or that Robert Langdon is as sexy as Dan tries to portray him. To me, RL will always seem like an old stuffy college professor, not a hot 32 yo with a swimmers body. Sorry, not happening.

    That said, I did stop mid-way through the book on my vacation in Ireland to write a blog post in lieu of throwing the book out the second floor window. I added it as the second in my series called “Are #1 New York Times Best-Selling authors teaching new writers bad habits?”. Why? Because my editor would lynch me for the things he got away with. An example, “Did every character have to scream every sentence?! All the time?! On every page?!” My quota is 1-3 uses per 110K word MS of the dreaded, yet sometimes effective, “?!”. Not 3 per page. That’s just one example of what irked me to distraction.

    My vote would have been ‘Yes’ to keep reading after the first page, and I always read prologues.

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