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

By Peter Selgin  on Jane Friedman site:

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:


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.

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