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?
Please judge by storytelling quality, not by genre—some 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.
A First-page Checklist
- It begins connecting the reader with the protagonist
- Something is happening. On a first page, this does NOT include a character musing about whatever.
- What happens is dramatized in an immediate scene with action and description plus, if it works, dialogue.
- What happens moves the story forward.
- What happens has consequences for the protagonist.
- The protagonist desires something.
- The protagonist does something.
- There’s enough of a setting to orient the reader as to where things are happening.
- It happens in the NOW of the story.
- Backstory? What backstory? We’re in the NOW of the story.
- Set-up? What set-up? We’re in the NOW of the story.
- What happens raises a story question—what happens next? or why did that happen?
This novel was in first place on the New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller list for December 7, 2014. How strong is the opening page—would this have hooked an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer?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? Reminder: “compelling” is much different than “interesting”—it means that you are irresistibly urged to turn the page by what you’ve read. Following are what would be the first 16 lines of Chapter 1.
THE PRISON LOOKED more like the campus of a community college than a place where men were kept in cells for ten years or longer for offenses committed while wearing the uniform of their country. There were no guard towers, but there were two staggered twelve-foot-tall security fences, armed patrols, and enough surveillance cameras to keep an electronic eye on virtually every millimeter of the place. Situated at the northern end of Fort Leavenworth, the United States Disciplinary Barracks sat next to the Missouri River on nearly forty rolling, forested Kansas acres, a mound of brick and razor wire cradled by a green hand . It was the only maximum-security military prison for males in the country.
America’s foremost military prison was called the USDB, or the DB for short. The Leavenworth federal penitentiary for civilians, one of three prisons on the grounds of Fort Leavenworth, was four miles to the south. Along with the Joint Regional Correctional Facility—also for military prisoners—there was a fourth privately operated prison in Leavenworth, which raised the total inmate population among the four prisons to about five thousand. The Leavenworth Tourism Bureau, apparently seeking to capitalize on any bit of notoriety to lure visitors to the area, had incorporated the prison angle into its promotional brochures with the phrase “Doin’ time in Leavenworth.”
My vote and editorial notes after the fold.
My vote: Nope
Here’s something that Donald Maass said in one of his workshops at the 2014 Writer Unboxed Unconference: that it’s engagement with the protagonist that matters the most in creating a narrative that keeps the pages turning, and a lack of that is usually the first way good manuscripts fall short. He said that he feels engagement with a character is best begun on the first page.
That makes sense to me, especially coming from a man who has read and analyzed hundreds of novels. And that’s why this novel’s first page gets a no from me. There’s not even the hint of a person or character. Nor of a story. It is, no doubt, a fine summary of research about a prison. I can tell you that the first chapter is pretty much the same until, on the very last page, a prisoner mysteriously escapes from the prison. But, if I were picking this book up to look at in a bookstore or scrolling through sample pages on Amazon, I would never have gotten there.
I wish someone could tell me why best-selling authors who are clearly strong storytellers indulge in these hundreds on hundreds of words of exposition and set-up before getting to the story. It’s so similar to the chapter submissions I see from unpublished authors—the info-dumping of things that the writer believes the reader HAS to know . . . and almost invariably doesn’t.
It’s not that bestselling authors can’t write an opening page that captures us with a character and a story. So why not start with that rather than an info-dump? While I have not read the novel, I will wager you that an intimate and detailed knowledge of the nature of this prison does not impact the story in any way. The only important story aspect of the first chapter is the prisoner and his escape.
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.