A friend sent me the first pages of his novel to critique but sent Chapter 2 instead of Chapter 1. When I questioned him why he sent his second chapter, he said, “Because nothing happens in Chapter 1.”
An effective beginning is difficult to achieve. It needs to accomplish a great deal in terms of orientation but most importantly, it must prompt the reader to keep turning pages. Even bestsellers often get it wrong.
I teach creative writing on the college level, and I spent the last week critiquing my student’s first few pages, so effective novel beginnings are on my mind. Today I’m critiquing the work of a bestselling author as if she or he were my student. I’m not going to say who this author is. (You can google it.) But my comments are in bold. (P.S. If this were a real student critique, I’d still be tough but would cushion the blow more than I do here.)
Sample first pages
Dreams plagued her, waking and sleeping. Prosaic beginning. We all have dreams. She understood dreams, visions, the knowing. They had been part of her all of her life, and for most of her life she’d learned to block it out, push it all away. Too general and vague to be an effective hook.
But these wouldn’t relent, no matter how she pitted her will against them. Dreams of blood and battle; of strange, moonstruck lands. In them, the faces and voices of people unknown but somehow vitally familiar lived with her. The woman with the fierce and canny eyes of a wolf, the man with the silver sword. They roamed her dreams with a woman who rose from the sea laughing, the man with the golden compass. Lots of telling instead of showing. Maybe you should consider opening with a scene.
And through all of them, strongly, the dark-haired man who held lightning in his hands. Awkward fragment.
Who were they? Confused. Who are they? How did she—or would she—know them? Why did she feel such a strong need for them, all of them?
With them walked death and pain—she knew—and yet with them came the chance for true joy, true self. True love.
She believed in true love—for others. She’d never sought it for herself, as love demanded so much, brought such chaos into a life. So much feeling. Again. Too general. And I’m getting no sense of character and so far this is very low tension. Where are we? Who is thinking this? Why should care we about her thoughts?
She wanted, had always wanted, the quiet and settled, and believed she’d found it in her little house in the mountains of North Carolina.
There she had the solitude she’d sought. There she could spend her days painting, or in her garden without interference or interruption. Her needs were few; her work provided enough income to meet them.
Now her dreams were haunted by five people who called her by name. Why couldn’t she find theirs? Why does she care about their names? Aren’t they just dreams?
She sketched her dreams—the faces, the seas and hills and ruins. Caves and gardens, storms and sunsets. Over the long winter she filled her workboard with the sketches, and began to pin them to her walls. Other people’s dreams are just not very interesting, and it sounds like these dreams are particularly dull because they are about setting and not people.
She painted the man with lightning in his hands, What does this mean? spending days perfecting every detail, the exact shade and shape of his eyes—deep and dark and hooded Cliche—the thin white scar, like a lightning bolt, Harry Potter? scoring his left eyebrow.
He stood on a cliff, high above a boiling sea. Boiling with what? Wind streamed through his dark hair. She could all but feel it, awkward like hot breath. And he was fearless in the face of the storm as death flew toward him.
Somehow she stood with him, just as fearless. What is going on here?
She couldn’t sleep until she’d finished it, the painting? wept when she did. She feared she’d lost her mind, and visions were all she had left. For days she left the painting on the easel while he watched her work or clean or sleep. He’s watching her? Or dream.
She told herself she’d pack it for shipping, send it to her agent for sale. And dipping her brush, she signed it at last.
Sasha Riggs—her name on the verge of the storm-wrecked sea. Melodramatic
But she didn’t pack it for shipping. She packed others instead, the work of the long winter, arranged for transport.
Exhausted, she gave in, curled on the couch in the attic she’d converted to her studio, and let the dreams take her. Elaborate. Why is she exhausted?
The storm raged. Wind whipping, the sea crashing, jagged spears of lighting hurled from the sky like flaming bolts from a bow. The rain swept in from the sea toward the cliff in a thick curtain. Some of the images are hard to visualize.
But he stood, watching it. And held out his hand for hers.
A scene that begins with a character thinking in a vague setting doesn’t offer enough tension, particularly when the only conflict comes from her dreams. I don’t have a good sense of this character or any of the challenges she might face in the coming pages. The author takes a dramatic tone but offers very little in the way of true drama. If this author was my student, I’d request significant revisions.
What do you think of this beginning? Agree with me? Disagree? Would you keep reading?