Tuesday, March 8, 2011

A very unscientific look at first pages - part two

On Friday, I did a post about first pages. If you missed it, you can check it out here. I got to have fun with making graphs and pretending I was a real statistician and just generally procrastinating to my heart's content. The conclusion I came to?

A successful first page needs Intrigue, Setting & Character to fully hook the reader (me in this case) and give them the Desire to Read On. If you only have space for one, better make it Intrigue.

Some of you may have noticed there were a few outliers in the graphs of last weeks post, so today I'm going to have a look at the first pages I studied and see what caused those.

Before I go on, I'd just like to reiterate that the ratings I gave these pages in no way reflects the quality of the book. I haven't read all these books, but even some of the ones I have read (and enjoyed) got mediocre scores for their first page. Just goes to show that the first page isn't the only way to hook the reader or I wouldn't have read them!

Let's start with Hush, Hush by Becca Fitzpatrick. It had a prologue so I did both the first page of the prologue and the first chapter and I gave both a 2/5. Both very clearly stated the setting as a heading before the rest of the text.
   First sentence (prologue):
Chauncy was with a farmer's daughter on the grassy banks of the Loire River when the storm rolled in, and having let his gelding wander in the meadow, was left to his own two feet to carry him back to the chateau.
The first sentence of the prologue is quite long (42 words) and has more details about the setting, including the weather and repeating details from the heading. The length of the sentence slows the pace down from the word go. There is no urgency or questions raised in the first page, unless you can count the details of a storm as setting an ominous tone, but it didn't really work for me.

   First sentence (Chapter 1):
I walked into biology and my jaw fell open.
In chapter one the first sentence is quite short. It shows setting, and to a certain extent, intrigue. I didn't count the intrigue in my analysis though because I felt like the rest of the page didn't live up to that intrigue. The 'jaw fell open' was due to Ken & Barbie stuck to the board at the front of the class with a note saying 'welcome to human reproduction (sex)'. While this is cute, it didn't make me need to read on to have a biology lesson. There was also some characterisation in the first page, which I again didn't count, because it was for the MCs best friend, not the MC herself.

Overall, neither page grabbed me, hence the score of 2/5. The first page of Chapter one was cute, but all it showed was a 'teenager' (no other details of the MC given on the first page) who is in high school and has a quirky biology teacher and a friend who doesn't like biology. Great. I don't care. At least not on the first page. Give me a reason to keep reading first, then give me the cute details.

Now let's look at Timeless by Alexandra Monir. This page had all three: Intrigue, Setting & Character. But it only got 3/5. Either this is a matter of taste (quite likely) or some ways of including all the elements don't work as well as others.
   First sentence:
Michele stood alone in the center of a hall of mirrors.
Straight away we have setting, character and intrigue. Why is she standing in a hall of mirrors? The first thing, I think, that lets down the intrigue is the fact that the whole first page is in italics. The first question I ask (instead of 'why is she standing in a hall of mirrors') is 'Is she dreaming?' Probably not the best question you want your reader to be asking when you're setting up intrigue, because it means all the cool things you're writing about aren't real.

The first page goes on to show even more character and intrigue. Michele's physical appearance is described in detail, including what she's wearing, in the context that while the reflections look like her, they don't move when she moves. They also have a key hanging around her neck which Michele doesn't have around her own neck.

The next paragraph is devoted to describing the key, with details like 'The key looked weathered and somehow wise, as though it weren't inanimate, but a living being with over a centuries worth of stories to share'. I'm a sucker for fantastical elements, but I have to question how she gets that much info from seeing an image of the key in her reflection.

The page has some great elements for creating intrigue (the hall of mirrors, the reflections that aren't actually reflections, the strange key) but I think it's let down by a number of factors. If it is a dream then the cool elements don't matter anymore, anyone can have a dream about strange things. Also, the page is split into two paragraphs, the first mostly entails description about what the MC looks like, the second describes the key. There's a lot of description here, and that doesn't help with pace. And lastly, the details about the key didn't quite get me to suspend disbelief, which is important if you're writing anything fantastical.

Now let's look at the three that got 5/5, to see what was done right. Unearthly, by Cynthia Hand, is the only one that got 5/5 that didn't have all three.
   First sentence:
The first time, November 6 to be exact, I wake up at two a.m. with a tingling in my head like tiny fireflies dancing behind my eyes.
Straight away - Intrigue. Why does she have tingling in her head? What does she mean by the first time? What is happening? Already I'm hooked and want to read on.

The first page goes on to describe the MC smelling smoke but finding nothing burning in her house. Then she goes to the kitchen for water because she can't sleep and the page ends with this:
... with no other warning, I'm in the middle of the burning forest. It's not like a dream. It's like I'm physically there. I don't stay long, maybe all of thirty seconds, and then I'm back in the kitchen...
Of course I'm going to turn the page to read the end of that sentence! And keep reading. I want to know what's going on. The intrigue was strong enough on this page to make up for the fact that it didn't have all three elements.

I didn't count this page as having character because, even though it's told in first person, I still don't know anything about her (I only know it's a her because I did read on and because of the cover).

Next, The False Princess by Eilis O'Neil.
   First sentence:
The day they came to tell me, I was in one of the gardens with Kiernan, trying to decipher a three-hundred-year-old map of the palace grounds.
Intrigue and setting straight away. Came to tell her what? Who are they? Why are they trying to decipher a 300 year old map? The setting alone is a bit intriguing. A story set in a palace? Cool.

In the rest of the page we learn the MC, Nalia, is a princess (character), and she and Kiernan are searching for a secret door in a wall in the gardens. This page has given me enough, and more, to make me keep reading. Not only do I want to know who 'they' are, and what they're going to tell Nalia, but I want to know about this secret door (which is revealed in the last sentence of the page).

Last one, Eon by Alison Goodman.
   First sentence:
I let the tips of both of my swords dig into the sandy arena floor.
We've got setting and we've got intrigue. The intrigue is a little subtler here, but I still want to know why she's fighting with swords.

Next we learn that she's in pain and she's training with her swordmaster (who despises her). Why is she in pain? Then we lean it's 'the bleeding pain': she's a 'she'. This is followed by the swordmaster calling her a boy. Whaa? Why is she posing as a boy? Lastly, we learn that she's considered the 'school cripple'.

Ok, I want to read more. Now. Luckily for me I have this book on my current TBR pile ; ).

So, have I bored you all to tears? Is there anything you disagree with me on? Agree? Are there any other titles you'd like me to give my reasoning on? What books have you read with first pages that forced you to keep reading?


  1. This is so cool! I love scientific-style analyses of writing and why it works. You always hear that you have to "grab the reader right away" but I've never thought of first pages like this. Off to analyze my own...

  2. No, not bored to tears but I'll have to come back and finish later as it's time to think about making food!
    One thing I wanted to share before it goes out of my mind - it might be an interesting exercise to look at First Lines.
    I've just read 'Pride and Prejudice' by Jane Austen. The first line is, "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." Not punchy but it does encapsulate the whole ethos of the book. And Dicken's A Tale of Two Cities goes something like, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." Super tension in that one sentence.

  3. Ok, I'm back :)
    From what you've written, Sari, it seems necessary for a question or questions to be raised (setting up intrigue). But you're not fully caught immediately. What follows that initial intrigue has to be good enough to hold you - so no cutesy description too early in the book.
    I'm intrigued by your suggestion that some ways of including all the elements may not work as well as other ways - any ideas on that one?

  4. It occurred to me as I was reading this that it's very difficult to judge a first page as though the reader were in a vacuum. If we're reading the first page, then we've seen the book on the shelf, thought the title seemed interesting, looked at the cover, and probably read the blurb on the back of the book (or the online store equivalent of all this). Which means that we already have an understanding of the premise, and presumably, promises of intrigue to come. At least to me, if the book intrigued me enough to pick it up, that means I like the premise enough to wait a little bit for the follow-through -- maybe that's just the cozy mystery reader in me -- but if I don't want to spend time with the characters, I just won't keep reading.

  5. Hardly bored at all. I find your analysis intriguing and helpful.

  6. LOVE this post, absolutely fascinating analysis! Would love to read another post on the other first pages you read. Totally agree with everything you've said, too. That first line from the Hush, Hush prologue really is very clunky.

  7. Glad you enjoyed it :). Haha at first I thought I was going to do them all, and then I realised how long the post would be O.O

  8. Glad it was helpful Mpax! And you weren't bored :)

  9. Me too. One of the reasons I love the Gatekeeper. She always has pie charts on her blog.

  10. Hey Prue, I really don't mind cutesy description. I just don't want it to undercut the intrigue. If it lessens the intrigue then it's taking away my reason to turn the page.

    I guess, like with anything in writing, the three elements still need to be combined with skill. It it's not done well then it's still not going to work to get people to read on. In Timeless, even though it had all the elements, there was a LOT of description weighing it down. And there was also the fact that the intrigue was created by something I didn't quite believe (the MC believing the key was so much more than just a key just by looking at it). And of course, I thought it was a dream. In this case I didn't read on to find out if it was or not.

  11. Glad you enjoyed it, Meredith! :)

  12. Very true about first lines, Prue. I did try to look at them here, but it wasn't the main focus of the analysis. If the first line is amazing then I can forgive the rest of the page for being mediocre, on the assumption that at some point the book will have to live up to the first line promise.