First Pages of Best-Selling Novels: Cinder

This week, in our examination of first pages of best-selling novels, we’re taking a look at a best-selling teen fantasy novel by Marissa Meyer called Cinder. We’re using my first-page checklist to go through each author’s first page to see why and how it effectively draws the reader quickly into the story. While novels don’t have to have every one of these checklist elements on the first page, usually the more they do have, the stronger the opening.

Regardless of genre, all novels need to start off with a bang, and readers open to a first page with a sense of anticipation, hoping the author will deliver on the promise of an exciting beginning.

Sadly, way too many novels begin slowly, with excessive narrative, summary, backstory, and explanation. While this was a common practice and acceptable decades ago, readers today want to be immediately immersed in the present action. The challenge for novelists is to find ways to bring to life a scene rich with sensory detail and introduce a compelling character (usually the protagonist) that readers will be intrigued by all on the first page.

A tall order? Sure. But is it really necessary to get all that on the first page (and without all that explaining and narrative)? Maybe you have the patience to read two or three or ten pages of a novel before it “really gets underway.”

Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t. A whole lot of readers (sorry, including me) will opt to stop reading if the first page doesn’t engage them. Maybe they’ll give a favorite author the benefit of the doubt and read more pages than usual if they’re struggling through a slugging opening. I’ve even read an entire novel on occasion that I didn’t particularly like just because of my “loyalty” to an author.

I don’t feel like doing that anymore though. My time is too precious to be wasting time reading boring novels. Sorry, just being honest here.

If you followed Live Write Thrive last year, you may recall I devoted a whole month to this subject of opening in the middle of action, or what’s called in medias res.  It takes careful thought to come up with a strong opening moment in which to showcase your character. That scenario you put her in needs to covey her personality, core need, and immediate goal/objective and problem, as well as establish setting, hint at a bigger conflict (if possible and/or useful to the premise), and perhaps show and describe other characters in the scene.

I’ve mentioned before in my posts that it can be frustrating and counterproductive to labor over that first page early on. I often just throw together a first scene loaded with way too much information, just so I can jumpstart my writing and get going in a novel. Sometimes starting is scary and daunting.

Whether you’ve never written a novel or you’ve written twenty, that first scene can be tough to write. It’s the start of a ginormous journey, and we can feel a wave of exhaustion and terror at the task before us.

So keep this in mind when crafting your first scene, and particularly your first page. You can always rough it in, come back from time to time and tweak, and then when you’ve finished a strong draft, gulp hard and really polish up that first page. It’s so much easier to infuse that first page with key thematic phrases, motifs, and even lines of dialogue that you know will have powerful impact once you’ve finished writing the entire book.

With that said, let’s take a look at Marissa’s first page of her first book in The Lunar Chronicles series.

One

The screw through Cinder’s ankle had rusted, the engraved cross marks worn to a mangled circle. Her knuckles ached from forcing the screwdriver into the joint as she struggled to loosen the screw one gritting twist after another. By the time it was extracted far enough for her to wrench free with her prosthetic steel hand, the hairline threads has been stripped clean.

Tossing the screwdriver onto the table, Cinder gripped her heel and yanked the foot from its socket. A spark singed her fingertips and she jerked away, leaving the foot to dangle from a tangle of red and yellow wires.

She slumped back with a relieved groan. A sense of release hovered at the end of those wires—freedom. Having loathed the too-small foot for four years, she swore to never put the piece of junk back on again. She just hoped Iko would be back soon with its replacement.

Cinder was the only-full-service mechanic at New Beijing’s weekly market. Without a sign, her booth hinted at her trade only by the shelves of stock android parts that crowded the walls. It was squeezed into a shady cover between a used netscreen dealer and a silk merchant, both of whom frequently complained about the tangy smell of metal and grease that came from Cinder’s booth, even though it was usually disguised by the aroma of honey buns from the bakery across the square. Cinder knew they really just didn’t like being next to her.

Why This Works

Let’s go through the checklist elements and take a look at how this first page measures up.

Opening Hook: Clever writing and image that grabs the reader—The hook comes in the unusual image portrayed in the opening paragraph. The reader knows the story takes place in a different time, and perhaps place, with an unusual protagonist.

Introduction of main character in first few lines: In the first few paragraphs, the author introduces Cinder who is presumably female and definitely not human. Android perhaps? She is made of steel, yet she feels both physically and emotionally. “Her knuckles ached” and “She slumped back with a relieved groan.”

Starting the story in the middle of something that’s happened (or happening): There isn’t a strong sense of what’s happening beyond the repairs Cinder is making on herself. 

A nod to setting; avoid excessive exposition or narrative: Again, readers will know they’re in a different time/place. The fantasy genre is definitely implied by the scenario of Cinder unscrewing and removing her foot. The author gives a further sense of setting in her description of the marketplace. Good job using senses—visual and scent—to describe the setting. 

A catalyst, inciting incident, or complication introduced for your character: By the end of the first page, the reader knows the others in the marketplace don’t like Cinder—though the author doesn’t reveal why she isn’t liked. This further hooks the reader to keep reading to discover why this seemingly likable character isn’t accepted by others. 

A hint at character’s immediate intentions: No, other than her repair issues.

A hint at character’s hidden need, desire, goal, dream, fear: Possibly to be liked and accepted by those around her. 

Unique voice/writing style: Yes. The author’s descriptions of Cinder are unique and draw the reader into the story. 

Setting the tone for the book: Yes. Evident from the beginning that this is fantasy. 

A glimpse at character’s personal history, personality—shed light on motivation: Strong character who has struggled for four years with an ill-fitting foot. She is also the only full-service mechanic in the area—setting her apart, though, at this point, we’re not told why that’s important. Not given a sense of motivation on the first page.

Hint of character’s initial plot goal: No.

A course of action/decision implied. Introduction of high stakes/dramatic tension: There isn’t strong tension beyond the sense of knowing Cinder isn’t liked. 

Good pacing; jump right into present action. No backstoryNot a lot of action, but again, the hook is in the wondering. Who is Cinder? What is her role as an android and why does she have this job? Why isn’t she liked?

  • One characteristic to reveal that makes your character heroic and vulnerable: Cinder’s emotions are interesting—her strength and vulnerability. She’s skilled and endures discomfort, which speaks to her strengths, yet she is concerned about others not liking being next to her, which reveals her vulnerability.
  • One element of mystery, something hinted at that raises curiosityWhy isn’t she liked? Also, the setting inspires curiosity.
  • One element out of the ordinary, unusual, that makes the book different/stand out: The unusual character and setting make this unique and appropriate for the fantasy genre.
  • Concise, catchy dialogue (if in the first scene) that is not boring or predictable: No dialogue on the first page.
  • A hint at theme: Because this is a book for teens, the themes of not being liked, caring what others think, acceptance are all Also, Cinder mentions freedom—a possible hint at theme.

What Could Have Been Better

I like the way this story starts, immediately with Cinder and the action she’s engaged in. I haven’t read the book, so my first impression as a reader is I find the setting and situation original and curious. I’m concerned that because she’s robotic (to what extent, we don’t know), and that might limit her ability to emote or feel much.

It helps to have that last line showing she’s aware that others around her are different from her and might not like her or the work she is doing, but that’s a bit vague. It may be they don’t like her personally or that she’s not human. Although, there is also no way to know at this point if the others in the marketplace or human or robotic like her.

And that’s okay. But I would be drawn more into this first page if I had less about the activity she is doing and more about her mind-set or mental state. I think it would be just as clear what’s going on in the opening if it were a bit shorter. For instance the author could take out “the engraved cross marks worn to a mangled circle” (which is a little clunky to read) and “A sense of release hovered at the end of those wires—freedom” (the relieved groan shows it already).

I’d also rewrite the passive construction, since “it was” could be replaced with stronger nouns and verbs. Look at the difference between “By the time it was extracted far enough for her to wrench free with her prosthetic steel hand” (a mouthful!) and “By the time she wrenched the screw out of her ankle with her prosthetic steel hand.”

She also has “Cinder was the only-full-service mechanic” and “It was squeezed into a shady cover” (not sure what that looks like) and “even though it was usually. . .”

While using was and it was isn’t necessarily bad, sentences can be more interesting if rewritten.

This sentence is flawed because it shows two actions performed simultaneously, when they are consecutive: “Tossing the screwdriver onto the table, Cinder gripped her heel . . .” These participial phrases can snag even the best writers (and editors, who missed this during the book editing process), so think about watching for them in your writing.

I’d like to see a little bit more of the marketplace and more than just smells, which are good. Maybe sounds too would help. But my main concern is the presentation of the character. I don’t get any real feel for her needs, dreams, hopes, problems other than an immediate repair issue. To her, freedom is replacing her irritating foot.

We’re told that she is the only full-service mechanic, but we don’t know how she feels about that or about her work or her life. I think a hint of that would be helpful to bond the reader to her. Iko is mentioned, but more could be given about this character and Cinder’s feelings about him/her.

The most important objective of a scene is to evoke emotion, and the first page of the first scene needs to somehow accomplish that in some small way. Of course, it’s hard to engage a reader’s heart that quickly, but it can be done. All that’s needed is a little bit of inner conflict and/or vulnerability. I think the author here, with just a few additional words could have helped make Cinder more empathetic.

However, the intriguing, original situation is enough to keep me reading a bit further to see what happens.

Your thoughts? Did you like this opening? What worked and didn’t work for you?

5 Responses to “First Pages of Best-Selling Novels: Cinder”

  1. Curtis Manges January 27, 2016 at 8:57 am #

    The part that stopped me was the fourth paragraph. She’s a full-service mechanic, but hasn’t been able to keep her own body up to spec for four years? That’s a kick in my credulity. I’d maybe go a little further with this one, but I’d be looking for an explanation to that improbability, and if I didn’t get one pretty soon, I’d probably drop this book and be on to something else.

    • Gentle Reader January 28, 2016 at 11:10 pm #

      “Having loathed the too-small foot for four years, she swore to never put the piece of junk back on again.”

      I’m not a fan of split infinitives or the sentence construction here.

      The writing style of the first page didn’t resonate with me, and I doubt I’d keep reading. However, the book seems to be enjoying considerable success on Amazon.com.

    • Catie February 28, 2016 at 4:31 am #

      The shoemaker always has the worst shoes. People who’s job is to service others after ignore, or simply don’t have the time to take care of their own needs.

  2. Pascal Inard February 2, 2016 at 5:58 pm #

    Hi Susanne,

    Analysing best-selling novels against a check-list is a great idea, and I’ve been waiting for this for a long time, because it’s really interesting to see what “works” and doesn’t work in real-life examples.Even more interesting are those that fall short against the check-list, but are still commercial successes.

  3. Catie February 28, 2016 at 4:26 am #

    That first sentence is great. The removal of the foot and the casual mention of the prosthetic arm are also great, but then I got tripped by the “only-full-service”. Is she the only mechanic that offers full service, or is she a mechanic that offers only full service? This pulled me out of the story. The rest goes downhill from here, because I’m told all of these things, when it would be incredibly easy to show them. She doesn’t have a sign that says “only-full-service”. First, it’s a bit silly to describe what isn’t there instead of what is. She could easily have a customer walk over and ask for a small repair, to which she would reply “I’m a full-service-only mechanic.” She could have the two merchants glare at her and comment the smell. This whole second part is info-dumpy, even though it’s colored with the MC’s POV, which is a shame since the first part was engaging.

    Still, the setting and the nature of the character makes me want to read on, even though the info dumping is warning me I’d probably regret it.

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