First Page Sins

From Jane Friedman’s blog, this: The Deadliest First Page Sin—Plus a Critique of Two Novel Openings

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:


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.

Good point! There’s a lot more at the link, including this 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.

I have a mild disagreement here, because I think the paragraph does in fact feel all wrong from the very first glance. That point of view stuff is really pretty egregious.

It’s interesting to me that Friedman feels this is a very common problem with workshop entries. I’m not sure I’ve noticed it, at least not anything nearly as extreme as the above example. I would have said that failure to set the scene, sometimes going as far as a “white room” setting, is the single most common issue. But she has probably seen a lot more workshop entries than I have.

Interestingly, I would say that the first of the two 1st-page critiques offered at the link does not show failures with pov, but does in fact fail to set the scene. The second, which both Friedman and I like, does a vastly better job of setting the scene and placing the protagonist in it. Neither has a problem with pov.

So . . . pov. It’s probably true that unless viewpoint is effectively established, most reader can’t connect emotionally with the story. A couple of authors always spring to my mind when point of view comes up:

Clever use of omniscient or rapid switches from one viewpoint to another: no one does it better than Judith Riley in her Margaret of Ashbury series.

Amazing use of pov to avoid ever showing us the viewpoint of the actual protagonist: Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond series.

Excellent use of a character’s specific and personal “voice” to draw the reader into the story: too many authors to mention, but The Hunger Games was a breakout sensation for a reason.

Extremely tight focus on one character’s viewpoint: CJC, for example with Bren Cameron and also with Cajeiri in Emergence, the latest Foreigner novel. Cherryh switches back and forth, with (for the first time, for me) Cajeiri’s viewpoint being way more fun. What a good idea it was to make him such an important pov character.

What are you all reading right now, and who is your favorite character?

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5 thoughts on “First Page Sins”

  1. Currently rereading Karen Memery, which is spot-on in terms of POV. (1st person, consistent dialect.)
    Favorite character is tough. Memery herself is excellent, but so are Marshall Reeves, Francine, Madam Damnable, etc.)

  2. I love Andevai! His combination of vanity and insecurity and pride and kindness makes him unique and complex and just completely appealing.

    I loved Karen Memory while I was reading it, for all those characters, but I admit that some time after finishing it I started to be more bothered by the extremely modern point of view inserted into Karen’s viewpoint. It started feeling too much like the author inserting her own views over the top of what would be plausible for that character in that world, and now I’m not sure I will go on with the sequel.

  3. I couldn’t finish Karen Memory, though I was really intrigued by the setting and the writing.

    I just finished reading the Twelve Kingdoms trilogy (Jeffe Kennedy). I don’t think I could decide on a favorite! I liked all the POVs, with the exception of the second at the beginning. But maybe Dafne. Even though she’s not a POV character (yet, I see there’s already a book), and she seemed a bit out of place (no other librarians ever mentioned at all— and the term librarian kept jumping at me as too modern), she’s just fun. Contrived, yes, but in the best way, as if she’s standing in for the modern reader.

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