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.[pullquote]
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?
Caveat: a strong first-person voice with the right content can raise powerful story questions and create page turns without doing all of the above. A recent submission worked wonderfully well and didn’t deal with five of the things in the checklist.[/pullquote]
This novel was number two on the New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller list for March 15, 2015. How strong is the opening page—would this have hooked an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer?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 17 manuscript lines of the prologue.
Brendan didn’t knock on the cabin door, just turned the handle and slipped inside, looking back as he did so to be sure no one had seen him. He didn’t want to have to explain what a young man from cabin class was doing in an elderly peer’s room at that time of night. Not that anyone would have commented.
“Are we likely to be interrupted?” asked Brendan once he had closed the door.
“No one will disturb us before seven tomorrow morning, and by then there will be nothing left to disturb.”
“Good,” said Brendan. He dropped on his knees, unlocked the large trunk, pulled open its lid, and studied the complex piece of machinery that had taken him over a month to construct. He spent the next half hour checking that there were no loose wires, that every dial was at its correct setting, and that the clock started at the flick of a switch. Not until he was satisfied that everything was in perfect working order did he get back off his knees.
“It’s ready,” he said. “When do you want it activated?”
“Three a.m. And I’ll need thirty minutes to remove all this,” the elderly peer added, touching his double chin, “if I’m to have enough time to get to my other cabin.”
Brendan returned to the trunk and set the timer for three o’clock. “All you have to do is flick the switch just before you leave, and double-check that the second hand is moving, then (snip)My vote and editorial notes after the fold.
My vote: yes
This opening has a lot of what I like to see in an opening page. It’s an immediate scene in which something is happening. There’s dialogue and, thank the gods of storytelling, no musing or droning description. While I don’t know who these characters are yet, and I certainly have no urge to care about them, what happens—which includes the dialogue—raises terrific story questions. I particularly like the line about “then there will be nothing left to disturb” and the way it forecasts violence and trouble. These people seem to be up to something nefarious, and I want to know what that is.
However, If this had been a submission to my blog I would look at this narrative to edit just enough to include this line on the first page, which comes right after the last paragraph in the excerpt:
“So what can go wrong?”
That little addition doubles the story questions for me and I would not be able to resist reading on. Oh, a couple of small things—my editor side would urge the writer to avoid the echo that comes from using “at the flick of a switch” and then, soon after, “flick the switch before…” And then it isn’t clear that they’re on a train. This could be easily solved by including, for example, the sound of a moving train, the click-clack of steel wheels on rails, or the sway of the car they’re in.
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.