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 page of this bestselling author’s newest novel. Please judge by storytelling quality, not by genre—there are folks who reject an opening page immediately because of genre, but that’s not a good enough reason when the point is to analyze for storytelling strength.
This novel was in first place on the New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller list for June 15. How strong is the opening page—would this have hooked an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer?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.
There was a ticking time bomb inside my head and the one person I trusted to go in and get it out hadn’t shown up or spoken to me for more than a year.
That’s a lot of time to start asking yourself questions. Who am I? What have I done with my life?
Who can I trust?
That last one is a doozy. It haunts you in moments of doubt. Sometimes when you wake up at night, you wonder if you’ve put your faith in the right people. Sometimes when you find yourself alone, for whatever reason, you review every little thing you know about someone, searching your memory for small, subtle things that you may have missed about them.
It makes you scared. It makes you think that maybe you’ve made some horrible mistakes lately. It drives you to do something, to act— only when you’re stuck on an island in the middle of Lake Michigan, you’re kind of limited in your choices of exactly what you can do to blow off steam.
I’d gone with my usual option. I was running through long tunnels filled with demons and monsters and nightmares, because it was easier than going to the gym.
The tunnels were big, the size of some of the substreets beneath the city of Chicago, their walls made of earth and stone, wound through with things that looked like roots but could not (snip)
My vote and editorial notes after the fold.
Did you recognize Jim Butcher and his Skin Game: A Novel of the Dresden Files ? It is the 15th in his Dresden Files series. You can assume many readers will already know of the previous books (I didn’t). Still, was this opening page compelling if you didn’t know of the precursors and had just picked it up to sample it in a bookstore?
My vote: No.
The voice is strong and clear, the writing just fine . . . but, for this reader, there wasn’t much of a story question that came from what’s happening. If, perhaps, I knew more about this character and cared for him, then the opening musings might have generated a story question or two—but I know nothing of him, and didn’t care. Otherwise, what’s happening? A man is running through a strange world as an alternative to exercising in a gym. It hints at demons and monsters and nightmares—but, especially given the musings of what’s going on in his head, how can I know whether they’re real or aspects of his mental turmoil? At this first-page-point, there’s no particular tension, no jeopardy to the character, and no compelling story question for me.
Your thoughts? Would you have turned the page?
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.