As queries with initial chapters spill into my agent inbox, I look closely for something to grab me and take hold of my imagination, and it needs to happen in those first few pages or chances are good I’m not going to ask to see more. As an agent I’m looking for true story telling technique. It’s all about building great expectations.
Great Expectations. Talk of Charles Dickens is swirling in the air, with the celebration of his 200th birthday… I can almost imagine Dickens writing of such a thing. Of a man celebrating his 200th, like a Miss Havisham lost in cobwebs, but with a birthday cake instead of a wedding cake… But I digress. Digression. A very Victorian thing to do.
The classic writers would never make it in today’s query/submission market, right? Today agents, editors, readers have such short attention spans that everything must be much faster, much more high concept, true?
Well, why don’t we put this to the test with a two-page pitch slam with some of our past greats. First person who walks up to me to pitch? Dickens himself. He sets his first two pages of Great Expectations in front of me, and we begin to read…
Now we must be fair to Mr. Dickens. Remember this novel was written between 1860-1861, a time long before television, and Internet, and sound bytes. A time when people surely had leisure time to dive into a novel and stay there, allowing the writer to spin a tale for at least 50 pages before we fully get to the heart of the story.
So does he open with pages and pages of back story and then slowly zoom into the main character and action? Actually, he sets you right beside a boy as he sits in the grave yard where the stones of his family and five brothers stand. The boy imagines what his family must have looked like based on the shape of “the little stone lozenges.” And Dickens sets a gloomy forlorn scene where we find that, “the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip.”
So far, we’ve got a little boy alone in the world, a touching glimpse at a childlike mind. Atmosphere. Sorrow. My friends, that is page one! What’s next? The moment we see Pip cry, we get this: “Hold your noise!” cried a terrible voice, as a man started up from among the graves at the side of the church porch. “Keep still, you little devil, or I’ll cut your throat!”
Okay, I’m hooked. I’ve just given Mr. Dickens my card and requested the full manuscript. I can’t wait to find out what happens to poor Pip. This reads more like a modern day thriller than some oldy moldy tale from long ago. Dickens transcends time because he knows great writing is about creating a character that we will care intensely about, and putting that dear person in terrible peril so that we the reader simply must see the story through to the end. Plus Dickens exhibits amazing voice. Graves are lozenges. A threatening man minces no words. And the writer promises a tale filled with heart and danger.
But of course, I tell myself, Dickens wrote his novel in serial form, giving the reader tantalizing bits in each issue, so perhaps he was more conscious than most about hooking readers than most writers “back in the day”? Maybe the next writer won’t be as impressive.
Next up? The lovely Jane Austen. She sets the first two pages of Pride and Prejudice on the pitch table and begins to read: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” Then in the next paragraph: “…this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.”
Austen writes with a wink and a tart tongue, and I know I’m in for a great ride. She launches immediately into dialogue between Mr. and Mrs. Bennet about this new wealthy man, and the dialogue is filled with sarcasm and exasperation and a keen ear for witty language. It’s hilarious and a perfect set up.
“Please send me the full immediately!” I say.
Too often I see writers throwing in a flashy high-concept “hook,” but that’s not the answer. Really I’m not impressed by an explosion on page one if I don’t care about the character, or a prologue showing a life-threatening scene if I’m not otherwise drawn in by the voice and feel pulled into this world.
There’s much to learn from the story telling masters of the past. It’s worth flipping open the classics to discover what makes them so compelling that we have vivid memories of these stories and characters even hundreds of years later.
Heart. Characters we must know more about. A fascinating point of view. Peril that we feel invested in. Strong story telling. Build those great expectations, and agents along with editors and readers, will burn to read more.
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