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—Protagonist
- It begins engaging 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. And I would seriously applying the checklist to the first page we encounter the antagonist.
This novel was number three on the New York Times trade paperback fiction bestseller list for July 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 How strong is the opening page—would this have hooked an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer?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.
The boy’s name was Santiago. Dusk was falling as the boy arrived with his herd at an abandoned church. The roof had fallen in long ago, and an enormous sycamore had grown on the spot where the sacristy had once stood.
He decided to spend the night there. He saw to it that all the sheep entered through the ruined gate, and then laid some planks across it to prevent the flock from wandering away during the night. There were no wolves in the region, but once an animal had strayed during the night, and the boy had had to spend the entire next day searching for it.
He swept the floor with his jacket and lay down, using the book he had just finished reading as a pillow. He told himself that he would have to start reading thicker books: they lasted longer, and made more comfortable pillows.
It was still dark when he awoke, and, looking up, he could see the stars through the half-destroyed roof.
I wanted to sleep a little longer, he thought. He had had the same dream that night as a week ago, and once again he had awakened before it ended.
He arose and, taking up his crook, began to awaken the sheep that still slept. He had noticed that, as soon as he awoke, most of his animals also began to stir. It was as if some mysterious energy bound his life to that of the sheep, with whom he had spent the past two years, (snip)
My vote and notes after the fold.
Caveat: I fudged just a little—there is a brief prologue, but I didn’t use it because I wanted reactions to the story itself and because it gave away the title of the novel in the first line.
My vote: no
As Donald Maass pointed out in his most recent WU post, an opening needs to achieve two things in the reader’s mind: engagement with a character and intrigue. I’m probably seen as desiring all intrigue, but that’s not so; I’ve come to understand that Donald’s insistence on engagement is just as required for the long haul of a novel, and the sooner that starts, the better. It can make the difference in turning the page despite the level of intrigue.
This opening definitely engaged me with the boy, but it didn’t rise to the level of intriguing for me. I suspect that a number of WU readers will somehow embody this narrative with enough intrigue for them to turn the page, but for me there was none of what writer Steven James calls for in his book on writing—you don’t have a story until something goes wrong.
Or, in this case, at least a hint of something about to go wrong. It’s not there for me.
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