Jane Friedman

The Deadliest First Page Sin—Plus a Critique of Two Novel Openings

Today’s guest post is by author and writing professor Peter Selgin, excerpted from his new book, Your First Page.


I read them all the time. Stories where scenes disappear before my eyes, where the point of view is as slippery as a greased tadpole, where authors play hard to get with vital statistics: stories that should be memoirs, and memoirs that should have been stories, not to mention stories built on the quicksand of cliché.

While there are seven deadly first-page sins I commonly encounter (which I detail at length in my book Your First Page), there is one that’s most deadly of all: default omniscience.

A story or a novel is as much about how it’s told—by means of what structure, through what voice or voices, from which viewpoint(s)—as about what happens. In fiction, means and ends are inseparable: method is substance. You may have all the ingredients—a plot, characters, dialogue, description, setting, conflict—but if they aren’t bound by a specific, consistent, and rigorously controlled viewpoint, you have nothing.

In workshops I’ve been known to write across the whiteboard:

NO POINT OF VIEW = NO STORY

I’m not talking minor gaffes and glitches. I mean errors so deep-rooted no line-editing can set them right, blunders that call into question not only the author’s grasp of a particular moment or scene in a story, but fiction’s primary purpose: to render experiences.

Fiction’s stock in trade is human experience, and experience is subjective: things don’t just happen; they happen insofar as characters feel and react to them. Subjectivity requires a nervous system. That no two nervous systems respond identically to stimuli gives fiction its raison d’etre.

To be authentic, fictional experiences should pass through a subjectivity filter. They must be sorted and sifted either through the sensibility of a character or characters or that of a so-called “omniscient” narrator — one who, to a variable extent, shares their nervous systems and perspectives on events. Unless this subjective filter or narrator has been created and is firmly in place, what’s conveyed to the reader isn’t experience, but information.

An example:

Hank could have passed for Lila’s grandfather. His white mustache added to his years, yet he kept himself trim and thought himself as t as the younger fathers. He was nuts about Lila, who still loved him, though lately she’d grown distant. She was no longer his little girl; in fact, she secretly wished that he would act his age. She especially hated it when he pretended to pull coins and other things out of her ears. Why was he so goofy? But all adolescent girls pass through a phase where they hold their fathers in mild contempt.

At first glance, nothing seems wrong with this paragraph. But on closer inspection problems arise. While the first sentence (“Hank could have passed for Lila’s grandfather”) is neutral-objective, the second sentence (“thought himself…fit”) shifts us into Hank’s personal, subjective viewpoint. Though the third sentence seems to dip into Lila’s feelings about him, the thought expressed by it could still be from Hank’s viewpoint. However, unless we assume that Lila’s secret is not a secret, the fourth, fifth, and sixth sentences plunge us fully into Lila’s consciousness. With the final sentence we get yet another shift in perspective, to an omniscient, generalized view of all adolescent girls’ relationships with their fathers.

The cumulative result of all these subtle and not-so-subtle shifts is that as a reader I am never clear whose experience I am getting. The point of view isn’t solid; the filter is loose or distorted, hence my ability to share the experiences offered by this passage is curtailed. I get all the information necessary to construct an experience, but constructing an experience isn’t the same as having or inhabiting one. It’s the difference between groceries and a meal.

For readers to inhabit our stories we must first somehow inhabit them ourselves. And yet we authors don’t really live in our stories, nor can we be expected to, since we’re obliged to sit at our desks in front of our computers. This is why we have to create narrators. The narrator lives inside the story; he (or she or it) is our emissary to the world of that story.

Notice I said we have to create the narrator. Narrators don’t create themselves, nor should they ever be confused with their authors, from whom they exist separate and apart. Nor should authors second guess or in any way intrude upon the narration. When they do, they violate point of view; the narrative filter is detached, displaced, or destroyed. Experience degenerates into information. We call the result author intrusion, and it blurs and finally dissolves the fictional dream.

Point of view can never be incidental or accidental. It’s as fundamental as the choice between present and past tense, or formal and informal diction, or dramatization versus summary and exposition.

Of all problems plaguing amateur works, none is more common, or more fatal, than mishandling of point of view. Typically, the problem results not from a chosen viewpoint being violated (though this, too, happens frequently), but because no viewpoint has been properly established to begin with, so there’s nothing to violate.

Example: In a story about a waitress named Linda, we read, “People didn’t think Linda was as pretty as she used to be.” Arguably, this could be Linda’s own view of things. If so, it’s a harsh view, presented with the blunt objectivity of a Gallup poll. Earlier in the same story we’re told, “Linda was a waitress and an alcoholic; everyone knew that.” Here, too, the perspective could arguably be Linda’s. But it’s a fairly lame argument, since alcoholics—those in the throes of their addiction, anyway—are generally the last people to label themselves as such. Since this pronouncement is made early in the story (first paragraph, third line), readers can’t be blamed for taking it not as Linda’s subjective opinion, but as an omniscient narrator’s objective verdict.

Ultimately, though, this turns out to be Linda’s story, presented to us, by and large, from her perspective. And so I’m thrown by those moments when the viewpoint turns objective, with statements like “Lately, people had been all too concerned about [Linda]” (presumably these are the same generalized people who think Linda’s looks aren’t what they used to be). Or is this Linda’s subjective viewpoint wearing an omniscient, objective mask? At the very least it’s confusing. At worst it’s inauthentic and unconvincing.

Again, the problem here goes deeper than a minor lapse or two. The problem is that the author hasn’t embedded herself sufficiently by way of her chosen narrator into her character’s psyche, or into any particular mindset. Had she done so, none of these lapses would have occurred. They would have been impossible. The italicized phrase is important, since there has to be that mediating presence between author and story. The author’s job is to convey the experience of the narrator; hence, it is the narrator’s experience that matters, not the author’s experience, which comes down to sitting at a computer.

Another example: In a story where eight-year-old Aidan takes his first plane trip to France, the author sabotages his POV strategy (and his story with it) in several ways: first, by straying into passive constructions (“It was the longest plane trip that Aidan had ever been on”) that locate the viewpoint beyond the character’s personal, subjective experience (as opposed to “Aidan yawned and shifted in his seat; he’d never been on such a long plane ride before”), then by drifting into an equally inadvertent omniscience (“They [Aiden and his kid sister] knew they had better behave themselves”), and finally by sliding into diction that yanks us abruptly out of Aidan’s eight-year-old psyche (“The only dietary adjustment [italics mine] was having to eat goat’s milk for breakfast,” as opposed to “Aidan spat out his breakfast: his mother served it to him with goat’s milk. It tasted like his armpit.”). In each instance the author has failed to become Aidan, to plant himself and the reader along with him by way of a realized and engaged third-person narrator firmly in Aidan’s psyche, to see, feel, think, act and react with him.

By resisting such immersion and commitment, by insisting on mixing our own ideas and sensibilities with those of our narrators and the characters whose experiences they convey, we keep readers at a vague, inconsistent distance from the worlds we want them to inhabit. The resulting experience in this case is neither Aidan’s nor Linda’s—nor that of a rigorously omniscient narrator, but what I call default omniscient: omniscience without plan, passion, or purpose, that fails to offer us a consistent, clear, reliable filter. It does the opposite. It muddies things up.

Does this mean we shouldn’t create omniscient narratives or narrators? Of course not. It means only that we should do so knowingly. Does this mean we must restrict ourselves to a single perspective or point of view? Not at all. Almost anything we do in our fiction, no matter how outrageous or experimental, can work if done consistently and with authority.

But too often writers simply neglect to make this most crucial of choices. They assume that point of view isn’t important, or that it’s something that can be fixed later on — which is like getting a flu shot after you’ve caught the flu.

Let either your characters’ or your omniscient narrator’s perspectives serve as the organizing principle of your stories, the source of every idea expressed in your narratives. Nothing should reach the reader that hasn’t passed through this point of view filter.

Point of view is the rock on which fiction is built; it can’t be added or subtracted any more than a canvas can be added to a finished painting. Remember: NO POINT OF VIEW = NO STORY.


First-Page Critique: Raising Expectations

First page

She stretched out lazy in the hot night. She wasn’t particularly interested in the colorful display overhead but her attention kept returning to the diffused splash of color reflecting on the water’s surface. With each splash followed another loud BANG as the fireworks exploded in the night sky. She closed her eyes and couldn’t remember a Fourth of July this humid for years. It was hard to tell the smoke of celebration from the haze of summer.

“Kate, catch,” a voice called out. She didn’t hesitate. Her instincts hadn’t slowed much despite the weather. She nodded her thanks and held the cold can up to her forehead momentarily before opening it and drinking greedily. She’d have to be careful how many of these she drank, she reminded herself.

She returned her attention to her own private celebration, aware of the sounds and the laughter going on around her but lost in her own thoughts. One firework explosion dragged into the next one. She’d never been much of a fan of the Fourth. She wasn’t even sure how Neil had convinced her to come out here. Her thoughts were interrupted with the presence of someone sitting down beside her. The warmth of another body so close felt like a personal intrusion and she wanted to move away but decided against it to avoid giving the wrong impression.

“Quite an impressive display,” he said.

“Sure,” she responded but clearly she wasn’t as impressed.

“Are you having a good time?”

She looked up into his face and saw the glow of blues and reds reflecting in glittery showers in his glasses. The brightness in contrast hid the expression in his eyes but she was fairly certain she knew what was going on behind the mirrored celebration. The vibration of her phone saved her from lying as she excused herself and got up to put distance between herself and Neil, probably much more than was necessary.

She sighed once she was satisfied that she’d allowed herself enough privacy and looked at the display number on the phone. It wasn’t one that she recognized but that wasn’t important right now.

Analysis

The first page of a novel can and ideally should accomplish many things. It may tell us something of the nature and background of the characters whose dramas we’ll experience with them, or it may describe the setting or settings in which those experiences are to occur and that may even give rise to those experiences (as the dust bowl setting of The Grapes of Wrath gives rise to the Joad’s and other sharecroppers’ struggles).

A first page also forges a tacit understanding between reader and author as to how the material is to be presented, in what voice, by means of what technique and style. First Person? Omniscient? Subjective? Epic or Lyric? Based on a book or story’s first page, the reader forms certain expectations. Assuming they are met, said expectations will give rise to consternation, disappointment, or—assuming the reader has an appetite for surprises (which appetite will likewise be whetted  or not  by the first paragraphs)—amusement.

Ideally, though, whatever else a first page accomplishes, it holds out the promise of a story. And since stories are always about one thing — people — a first page that successfully evokes character[s] goes a long way toward not only making, but keeping, that promise.

Here, the author introduces us to Kate, who, on a muggy Fourth of July evening, lies stretched out (on the grass, on a chaise lounge?), aware of but not all that interested in the fireworks exploding in the sky overhead, and whose mental reflections are rendered as splashes of color diffused over the surface of a body of water (lake? ocean? river?).

And though the fireworks and their reflections are lovingly and capably described, beyond her being jaded about both the Fourth of July and Neil (the boy watching them along with her), what do we know or learn about Kate?

The answer to the question points to the weakness of this otherwise nicely written opening. The answer: very little. How old is Kate? What is her relation to Neil? Why — since she seems indifferent and even hostile to him — did she accept his invitation to the fireworks display? What town are we in, in what part of the country (we assume it’s in the United States, since people don’t celebrate July Fourth elsewhere). We learn more about the fireworks, the weather, and Kate’s mood than about who these two people are and the nature of their relationship and situation. That Kate’s feelings are expressed negatively, in terms of what doesn’t preoccupy or interest her (fireworks; Neil), makes it all the harder to get a handle on her.

In the penultimate paragraph Kate’s cell phone vibrates, rescuing Kate and her readers from this anti-scene that seems to fulfill no other purpose but to be interrupted. Possibly the phone call will present us with something more dramatic or to the point; perhaps the fireworks display is merely a setting for—and the set-up for—the phone call. If so, the author might want to front-load the scene:

They were watching the fireworks display when Kate’s phone vibrated.

From there, the author might go on to establish that Kate’s mind isn’t on the fireworks or on the boy watching them with her, but on that phone call, one she’s been longing for or dreading. By being even more specific, the first sentence might thrust us more deeply into the crux of a story (“Kate was watching the fireworks display with her fiancé when the casting director called.”).

By means of a cunningly chosen first sentence, readers might enter this story with just the right expectations raised, with curiosity and tension, rather than with a series of bored sighs set against a backdrop of colorful explosions.


First-Page Critique: False Suspense vs. Generosity

First page

The road train floated towards us above a hot blue lake across the road — a dead straight road away to the horizon. The monster was wavering across the water and I couldn’t decide whether it was really swaying or just the mirage trembling. It looked exactly like a boat with a cresting bow wave ahead of it.

We’d left early that morning, and perhaps by then I was a bit mesmerized by the road because I had a delusion that we were sitting still while a tunnel of bush streamed past us.

It was looming — closer and closer — its second trailer swinging over the double white line. There was a small white shape in front of it. The truck was frustrated, trying to find a clear section long enough to pass a caravan lolling along well below the speed limit. It had its overtaking indicators on. It couldn’t pass — surely it’d seen us. I braced myself for the collision — the smashing, shrieking, grinding impact of a sideswipe. Its shock wave buffeted me, and then it pulled out to pass behind.

The fright jolted elusive memories. Tormenting images from a film out of focus. The smell of burning oil. Someone screaming: get us out, get us out. Hot metal ticking. Simon’s face, greying, blood oozing from his ear. Rhythmic blue lights and sirens bouncing off buildings through the towns. And the next day, when Langston told me Simon had died, my disbelief that I had no memory of the last twenty-four hours and how the crash had happened.

A year later — and I was traveling east on the same road. Setting my mind to the four thousand kilometer drive across Australia. I’d heard people say they could do it in forty hours or so, but this wasn’t a speed trial — I just had to complete the crossing. I’d made the decision to leave Perth, move to Sydney. The removalist’s doors had closed on our things, I’d packed Alice, our bags and the last bits into the car and now I felt that I had finally reached a point of no return.

Analysis

Though the term is more familiar in Australia, a road train (or “land train”) is a truck pulling two or more trailers in tandem. In this effective opening, the road train becomes a source of anxiety and terror looming on the wavering horizon, “floating toward us above a hot blue lake across the road” — like one of those B-movie monsters from the 1950s, The Blob or Empire of the Ants. No longer simply a conveyance transporting innocent merchandise from point A to point B, here the road train becomes Yeats’ vast image “arising out of the desert sand … moving its slow thighs…slouch[ing] toward Bethlehem to be born.” The narrator finds it scary, and so do we.

In fact, the truck is only a truck — but still a source of fear and anxiety as it bears down on the protagonist in her car “like a boat with a cresting bow wave ahead of it.” We are in Australia, somewhere in the Outback, presumably. As one of the road train’s trailers swings over the double white line, the narrator braces herself for the inevitable collision, for “the smashing, shrieking, grinding impact of a sideswipe” — which, of course, doesn’t come.

Instead of being smashed to death, the narrator is jolted into the past, into a memory of another violent disaster. Evocations of fire, screaming, hot metal ticking, “blood oozing,” of sirens wailing and emergency lights flashing off of buildings. The memory is vague yet vivid. We learn that someone very close to the narrator — Simon, possibly the narrator’s husband — died in “the crash.”

Then the flashback ends and we return to that wavering stretch of highway — the same road, apparently, where Simon met his fate a year earlier. She is traveling from Perth to Sydney, a distance of over 4,000 kilometers, or over forty hours, traveling “with Alice [her daughter?], [her] bags, and the last bits [of her life] in her car.” The rest of her belongings are in the hands of “the removalist,”  the Australian term for a moving contractor.

A successful opening depends almost entirely on the ratio of information provided versus questions raised. Provide too much information, and you mitigate suspense; provide too little, and you cross the line from suspense to confusion and/or frustration.

Beginning authors tend to err on the side of confusion/frustration. They withhold too much information, making it hard or impossible for readers to follow — let alone to appreciate  — what’s happening. They trade in false suspense: suspense that asks not “What’s going to happen?” but “What am I reading?”

More experienced and confident writers tend toward generosity rather than stinginess. They aren’t afraid to make things clear, to give us all or most of the information we need to understand what’s happening in any moment or scene, making it easier for us to wonder — based on what we already know — where things are going, what’s going to happen next.

Generosity takes confidence: you have to believe that you have a good story to tell, and that the more you give, the more readers will want. If beginning writers often play hard-to-get, it’s because they aren’t so sure.

With this opening, the writer achieves the perfect balance of information vs. suspense. Though little is spelled out, much is conveyed. A mother whose life has been shattered by tragedy, hoping to leave that tragedy behind and begin a new life, travels along a desolate stretch of desert highway. Will she make it? The road itself becomes a hazard, a portent, a metaphor for the journey that has just begun — and which, with its wavering mirages and hazards, is bound to be treacherous. This is a strong opening.


If you found this post helpful, I highly recommend Your First Page by Peter Selgin.