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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.

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.