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?
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.
This novel was number one on the New York Times trade paperback fiction bestseller list for April 12, 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 How strong is the opening page—would this have hooked an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer?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 Chapter 1.
It was all because of the Berlin Wall. If it weren’t for the Berlin Wall, Cecilia would never have found the letter, and then she wouldn’t be sitting here, at the kitchen table, willing herself not to rip it open.
The envelope was gray with a fine layer of dust. The words on the front were written in a scratchy blue ballpoint pen, the handwriting as familiar as her own. She turned it over. It was sealed with a yellowing piece of sticky tape. When was it written? It felt old, like it was written years ago, but there was no way of knowing for sure.
She wasn’t going to open it. It was absolutely clear that she should not open it. She was the most decisive person she knew, and she’d already decided not to open the letter, so there was nothing more to think about.
Although, honestly, if she did open it, what would be the big deal? Any woman would open it like a shot. She listed all her friends and what their responses would be if she were to ring them up right now and ask what they thought.
Miriam Oppenheimer: Yup. Open it.
Erica Edgecliff: Are you kidding, open it right this second.
Laura Marks: Yes, you should open it and then you should read it out loud to me.
Sarah Sacks: . . .
My vote and editorial notes after the fold.
My vote: yes
Perhaps Don Maass might call this an example of “bridging tension,” a story question raised that isn’t dealing with the main conflict of a story, but one that is sufficient to get us to turn the page. Well, it worked for me. I want to know what’s in that letter, so I turned the page. The voice was another factor—strong, clear, definitely a person and not a reporter or an author just laying out information.
The Amazon review had this to say about Liane Moriarty: “Liane Moriarty is probably doomed to be forever labeled a writer of “chick lit.” But despite its dopey name, her new novel, The Husband’s Secret, is better described as a comedy of manners and one with a serious undertone.”
One more thing—I download the first chapters for Flog a Pro as samples for my Kindle. As a result, I can (if compelled) read on. Here I skimmed ahead to learn what was in the letter—by chapter’s end I had yet to find out. That bridging tension was keeping me in its grip, though, because what had been revealed along the way only increased my interest in knowing what that letter had to say and, ultimately, its effect on this woman, her husband, and her family.
Let me add that, because of my insistence on a first page being compelling, I’m often accused of only responding with a page turn to balls-to-the-wall ACTION!!! Clearly, in this case (and many others), not so. This opening succeeded in creating a delicious “itch-that-has-to-be-scratched” tension in me.
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.