Don’t detour readers from your story.
by Andy Scheer
The first sentence told me the novel was in trouble. The rest of the paragraph confirmed that. And the second paragraph was no better.
Fortunately, the author had sent me the genre novel for a critique. So I was able to show her where she had missed the opportunity of a story’s most important words. If potential readers aren’t attracted by the first page, they’ll never read the second.
That’s why in critiquing fiction, my first assessment point is the hook:
Does the author attract reader attention from the first paragraph and on the first page? Does it begin with a story or with backstory/explanation? Are key character(s) quickly introduced by showing them engaged in a conflict or action? Are character(s) likable and distinctive?
Here’s what I told the author:
- The story does not begin with a character, but a literary-style paragraph of lurking shadows that isn’t immediately clear or engaging.
- The next paragraph introduces a character simply as “a figure.” I’m concerned the note of mystery comes at the cost of engagement with the character and the story.
- Because the character is perceived as though being watched through a telescope, readers don’t feel a close connection to the character—or to the story.
- I fear that a potential buyer, feeling this lack of engagement in the opening pages, will opt not to read further.
- The opening has considerable repetition—presenting the same information in slightly different ways. This effort to reinforce ideas comes at the cost of slowing the prose—and signaling to readers that this story (125K is definitely an epic length) may be a long slog.
Those were not the kind of comments the author hoped to hear, but what she needed.
In revising the opening pages for her, I cut the confusing “literary” paragraph. Then I replaced the reference to “a figure” with the character’s name—at the start of the opening sentence. Now the story began with a character in action.
Next I changed a time reference from vague to certain, converted the rest of the paragraph from passive voice to active, and trimmed redundant words. Suddenly the story had a first paragraph that invited people to read the second.
That’s its job.