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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

While it’s not a requirement that all of these 6 storytelling elements 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 the first pages of the prologue and first chapter of this bigtime bestselling author’s new novel.

Sometimes writers submit both a prologue and a first chapter for critique on my blog, Flogging the Quill. A number of literary agents have said they frequently skip prologues. And so do many readers because they know it’s not the real story. Today’s novel has a prologue, so let’s flog the first pages of both the prologue and first chapter and see if either compels a page turn.

This novel was in first place on the New York Times hard cover bestseller list for December 15. Would the opening pages of the prologue and first chapter are have hooked an agent if they came in from an unpublished writer? Do you think the narrative is compelling? Following are what would be the first manuscript pages—there’s a poll for each part.

Prologue

I trudged aimlessly through the dark, empty streets of Washington, haunted by the memory of my son Ali telling me that the only way to kill a zombie was to destroy its brain.

It was 3 a.m. Storms punished the city.

I’d been walking like that for hours by then but didn’t feel hungry, or thirsty, or tired in any way. When lightning bolts ripped the sky and thunder clapped right over my head, I barely flinched. Not even the pouring rain could slow me or soothe the agony that burned through every inch of my body because of what had been done to my family. With every step I kept seeing Ali, Bree, Damon, Jannie, and Nana Mama in my mind. With every step the horror of what had happened to them ignited inside me all over again, and loneliness and grief and anger.

Is this what Thierry Mulch wanted? I kept asking myself.

Thierry Mulch had destroyed everything I loved, everything I believed in. He’d gutted me and left a dead, soulless man doomed to endless, meaningless movement.

As I walked, I kept hoping Mulch or some anonymous street predator would appear and blow my head off with a shotgun, or crush it with an axe.

There was nothing I wanted more than that.

Sixteen Days Earlier . . .

Chapter 1

Sitting in a parked work van on Fifth Street on a beautiful April morning, Marcus Sunday used high-definition Leica binoculars to monitor Alex Cross’s house and felt a genuine thrill, thinking that the great detective was sure to make an appearance sometime in the next half hour or so.

After all, it was a Thursday and seven thirty in the morning. Cross had to work. So did his wife. And his children had school to attend.

Sunday had no sooner had that thought than Regina Cross Hope, Cross’s ninety-one-year-old grandmother, came up the sidewalk from the direction of St. Anthony’s Catholic Church. The old bird was tough and moving at a surprising clip despite the cane. She walked right by his van, barely gave it a glance.

Then again, why would she?

Sunday had attached magnetic signs to the van that advertised OVER THE MOON VACUUM CLEANER COMPANY. And behind the tinted glass he was wearing the uniform of said company, a real find at the Salvation Army. Fit perfectly.

The used vacuums in the back of the van had been purchased at a secondhand store out in Potomac for sixty bucks apiece. The phony magnetic signs had been ordered online through (snip)

My vote and editorial notes after the fold.

Did you guess James Patterson and his newest, Cross My Heart? I suspect the mention of his main character, Alex Cross, in the first chapter gave it away.

My vote on the prologue: Yes.

Cross My Heart coverI’m one of those readers who usually skip prologues, particularly when they are not a real scene but, instead, a character musing/internalizing. But this one raised significant story questions—what had happened to his family, and what was going to happen to him? The unnamed character is a sympathetic one because of his grief and whatever mysterious thing happened to make him feel this way.

My vote on the chapter opening: Yes

With the strong story questions raised by the prologue, I did want to turn this page. The narrative suggests something nefarious going on with Mr. Sunday and, in the light cast by the prologue, I assume it has something to do with that tragedy.

However–it could have been stronger. The trudging description of the van and the things this character had done consume words without contributing to story—does it matter what the vacuum cleaners cost and where he bought them? I don’t think so. The amount of description prevented the appearance on the first page of a line that ties the prologue to the first chapter in a compelling way. Right after the line about ordering the phony signs came this:

So had the phony badge on his left shirt pocket. It read: THIERRY MULCH.

With that at the bottom of page one to connect with the prologue, for me the opening page becomes a sure winner.

However, as an editor, the line that followed the “Thierry” sentence above would have had me calling the writer out for a break in point of view. It was description of the character, and we’ve been tightly inside his third-person close POV. The description read:

A lithe, fit man in his late thirties with close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair and slate-gray eyes, Sunday checked his watch as Cross’s grandmother disappeared inside the house.

That technique immediately distanced me from the story. People don’t generally think of themselves as lithe, particularly in the midst of surveillance. Nor would he naturally be musing that his eyes were “slate gray.” Also, I don’t think a physical description of this character was necessary at this time. What is necessary is to keep going with what’s happening—with story.

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.