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?
While it’s not a requirement that all of these 6 storytelling ingredients 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 the first pages of this bigtime bestselling author’s new novel.
This novel was in first place on the New York Times trade hardcover and e-book bestseller lists for January 12. Let’s see just how strong the opening page is—would this have hooked an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer? Do you think it’s compelling? Following is what would be the first manuscript page (17 lines) of Chapter 1.
They found Seth Hubbard in the general area where he had promised to be, though not exactly in the condition expected. He was at the end of a rope, six feet off the ground and twisting slightly in the wind. A front was moving through and Seth was soaked when they found him, not that it mattered. Someone would point out that there was no mud on his shoes and no tracks below him, so therefore he was probably hanging and dead when the rain began. Why was that important? Ultimately, it was not.
The logistics of hanging oneself from a tree are not that simple. Evidently, Seth thought of everything. The rope was three-quarter-inch braided natural Manila, of some age and easily strong enough to handle Seth, who weighed 160 pounds a month earlier at the doctor’s office. Later, an employee in one of Seth’s factories would report that he had seen his boss cut the fifty-foot length from a spool a week before using it in such a dramatic fashion. One end was tied firmly to a lower branch of the same tree and secured with a slapdash mix of knots and lashings. But, they held. The other end was looped over a higher branch, two feet in girth and exactly twenty-one feet from the ground. From there it fell about nine feet, culminating in a perfect hangman’s knot, one that Seth had undoubtedly worked on for some time. The noose was straight from the textbook with thirteen coils designed to collapse the loop under pressure. A true hangman’s knot snaps the neck, making death quicker and less painful, and apparently Seth had (snip)
My vote and editorial notes after the fold.
My vote: Yes.
What is there about a body that provokes such interest? It’s a great hook for raising immediate story questions—what happened? Why did it happen? The matter-of-fact tone/voice here lends credibility to the story; it almost reads as a non-fiction report, especially when it goes into details about a hangman’s knot. I simply can’t write that way—I’m the sort of writer and reader who wants something to be happening.
And there’s the potential drawback in this narrative, at least for me. There’s no real emotional content, no protagonist to connect with, and nothing really happening. For this reader, something had better happen soon or I’ll stop reading. But I did find this first page compelling enough to move me to the next one.
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.