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?
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)
Let’s Flog Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
And now for something completely different to flog: a 28-year-old sci-fi novel that is at the top of The New York Times September 8, 2013 bestseller list of paperback mass market fiction. Ender’s Game was first published in 1985. I remember reading it, but back then I never thought about the opening page. Following is what would be the first manuscript page (17 lines) of the Chapter 1 in Ender’s Game.
“I’ve watched through his eyes, I’ve listen through his ears, and I tell you he’s the one. Or at least as close as we’re going to get.”
“That’s what you said about the brother.”
“The brother tested out impossible. For other reasons. Nothing to do with his ability.”
“Same with the sister. And there are doubts about him. He’s too malleable. Too willing to submerge himself in someone else’s will.”
“Not if the other person is his enemy.”
“So what do we do? Surround him with enemies all the time?”
“If we have to.”
“If the buggers get him, they’ll make me look like his favorite uncle.”
“All right. We’re saving the world, after all. Take him.”
* * *
The monitor lady smiled very nicely and tousled his hair and said, “Andrew, I suppose by now you’re just absolutely sick of having that horrid monitor. Well, I have good news for you. That monitor is going to come out today. We’re going to take it right out, and it won’t hurt a bit.”
Ender nodded. It was a lie, of course, that it wouldn’t hurt a bit. But since adults always said it when it was going to hurt, he could count on that statement as an accurate prediction of (snip)
My vote and editorial notes after the fold.
My vote: Yes
I know my vote could well be colored by an emotional residue from my long-ago reading. Still, for me, the opening page is a good example of raising story questions and character introduction. Even though my blog readers generally hate unattributed dialogue, and generally I discourage “radio” dialogue that has no description or other beats, the brief first part not only characterizes the protagonist, it give us huge stakes—saving the world. Conflict on a vast scale is promised in the first half of the page.
And then the second half engages us with that character. I found myself immediately sympathizing with him—yes, adults do always seem to lie about how much any given procedure will hurt.
I remember being enthralled by Ender’s Game all those years ago. It’s a story that transcends genre—even if you’re not a science fiction fan, this book could resonate with you because it does, after all, show us something about the human condition. I, like many younger readers, felt that I was Ender, too. I’m going to have to re-read it, I think, just to see how it feels now.
Why the surge in sales after all these years?
There’s a film of Ender’s Game coming out in October and there are some cool-looking trailers out there. Some big stars in the cast, too. Check it out
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.