Flog a Pro: Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

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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 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
here.

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

    Yes. Some years ago, one of those mind-altering gasses that infuse critique groups got loose, and a meme developed that said, “Never start with dialogue that doesn’t have attributions, because the reader needs to know who’s speaking.”

    Bosh. It’s a great way to start if handled right, as Card shows here.

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  2. says

    The point about the opening dialogue and attributions issue is important. I found the opening intriguing but did want more of an anchor, thinking I’d get something soon. Too many pronouns at the start is uncomfortable and the sudden break in the POV with the dreaded *** was jarring for an opening page; the second you get a little grip, the reader is yanked out.

    I did stumble on the sentence … “But since adults always said it when it was going to hurt …” The “it” twice in same sentence? Awkward sentence. As an editor I might have suggested … “But since adults always said that when it was going to hurt…”

    As a reader (and a writer) I’d go for a smoother opening so the reader is drawn in instead of being tossed around.
    Paula Cappa´s last blog post ..Mysteries of a Crystal Egg

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  3. says

    Come on Ray, you can’t tell he didn’t have at “Hello”.

    (“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.”)
    Tension and Intrigue will always persuade me to turn the first few pages.
    Any middle school male with leadership qualities and a love for adventure will gravitate towards Ender’s Game.
    Thanks for Flogging one of my favorite stories.

    It’s not the Way of Shadows, but it will do.

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  4. says

    I voted yes, but I agree with Paula’s comments. It jumps around and the initial dialogue, while compelling, lacks context. Still the high stakes and the selection of the young boy make me want to turn the page. Thanks, Ray. This is a great series.
    CG Blake´s last blog post ..Beware the Dreaded MacGuffin

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  5. says

    The items on the storytelling checklist are things that readers think about without knowing it. It’s interesting to see what I’m looking for when I choose a book. The checklist will also be helpful as I write reviews for Goodreads.

    I voted yes, but I agree that unattributed dialogue and vague pronoun references are distracting for me.

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  6. says

    I loved the first sentences hook and would have read it for that alone, but, for me, the dialog that followed was too vague and deflated the amazing opening words.

    But then, there could have been some cover or back blurb which would cause me to browse into another chapter.

    The opening was stellar. A huge lesson for us novices.

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  7. Cal Rogers says

    I loved this opening and will buy the book as soon as I submit this comment. The most intriguing thing for me was precisely that there was no dialogue attribution. Who are these people and who are they talking about (the use of pronouns) are wonderfully distilled, powerful questions that for me would have been ruined with information that I know is coming shortly. Not knowing and wanting to find out is what makes me want to turn the page. This opening is like a fine wine that needs to be sipped, not tossed back like it was a shot of bad whisky.

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  8. Debbie Watley says

    I haven’t read the book, but I’ve seen the movie trailer, so I know enough of the story that I’d go on. However, I voted no. Without already knowing who Ender is, I wouldn’t keep reading. I like the tension and the promise of bad times coming, but I felt lost. I had to re-read the first couple sentences. To me the beginning dialogue was more of an unnecessary prologue. I connected with the story when Ender knows getting the monitor out is going to hurt. Right away I know he’s young and has something unnatural and unusual going on in his life. But that didn’t happen until the end of the page.

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  9. says

    Yes, I’d definitely read. (As did my son, who powered through it the night we brought it home from the bookstore.) The first line is a great hook, the unattributed dialogue actually ratchets the tension for me. After the break, that first line has extra meaning. Then the promise of a medical procedure that won’t hurt…? Yeah. I’m that kid and I’m deeply sympathetic to both the small and larger conflicts.
    Jan O’Hara´s last blog post ..Game-changer: Why Amazon Will Rule the World

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  10. Juli says

    Perfect timing! I finished reading Ender’s Game earlier this week. I completely agree with cautioning the use of a radio-voice, however, it fits the genre and gives it an old-fashion-sci-fi feel. Also, by using this at the very beginning, Card intensifies that level of “big-brother-watching”, making it almost personal… Loved it!

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  11. says

    Personally, I would not risk this kind of opening, but perhaps it is more acceptable in sci-fi than in women’s fiction. Even so, I found the references to the brother and the enemies to be intriguing. I felt compelled to know what was going on, even though I suspected early on that this story, with its promise of saving the world, would not appeal to me. So, in general, I would say it works well as an opening in its genre.
    Leanne Hunt´s last blog post ..God And The Superego

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  12. says

    It’s a risky opening, but it works because the subject of the unattributed voices, Ender, is immediately presented to the reader, along with the dual implied threat of the buggers and the need to make life unpleasant for Ender. We immediately face compelling questions. What are the buggers? Why is Ender so important? What do the speakers plan for Ender?

    I picked up the book in high school, and the first page sucked me in. It is an incredible story, incredibly well written, and it kept me reading to the last page.
    Marion Harmon´s last blog post ..Updates and Stuff…

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