First Pages of Best-Selling Novels: Revival

Today, for our first-page analysis, we’re going to look at Revivalby Stephen King. Little needs to be said about King and his being the king of the horror genre. I’ve read many of his novels over the years, and some I loved and others I didn’t. His style has changed a bit over the decades, but readers of his novels have high expectations and enjoy his trademark storytelling.

If you haven’t been following these weekly forays into best-seller first pages, be sure to read through them. By looking at various genres and authors, you’re getting to see many ways a first page can draw readers into story. What’s interesting to note, to me, few of the novels we’ve looked at have any dialogue. Many have prologues, and most have been solely narrative—as is the case with Revival.

Writers are often urged to start their opening scenes in the middle of action and/or dialogue. But clearly that’s not a requirement. Sure, it can be easier to pull readers in with action and showing. It’s more challenging to engage readers in a thoughtful discussion, especially theoretical or abstract or philosophical. But often great authors start their books this way, as we’ve noted in recent posts. And Revival is no exception.

We’re using my first-page checklist to go through the author’s first page to see why 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. However, as we’ve been seeing on Wednesdays, if the setup for the premise is compelling and strong, and the voice of the POV character is engaging, a writer can often get away without some of the elements we’ve been taught are essential to show on the first page.

So let’s take a look at King’s first page:

I.

Fifth Business. Skull Mountain.

Peaceable Lake.

In one way, at least, our lives really are like movies. The main cast consists of your family and friends. The supporting cast is made up of neighbors, co-workers, teachers, and daily acquaintances. There are also bit players: the supermarket checkout girl with the pretty smile, the friendly bartender at the local watering hole, the guys you work out with at the gym three days a week. And there are thousands of extras—those people who flow through every life like water through a sieve, seen once and never again. The teenager browsing graphic novels at Barnes & Noble, the one you had to slip past (murmuring “Excuse me”) in order to get to the magazines. The woman in the next lane at a stoplight, taking a moment to freshen her lipstick. The mother wiping ice cream off her toddler’s face in a roadside restaurant where you stopped for a quick bite. The vendor who sold you a bag of peanuts at a baseball game.

But sometimes a person who fits none of these categories comes into your life. This is the joker who pops out of the deck at odd intervals over the years, often during a moment of crisis. In the movies this sort of character is known as the fifth business, or the change agent. When he turns up in a film, you know he’s there because the screenwriter put him there. But who is screenwriting our lives? Fate or coincidence? I want to believe it’s the latter. I want that with all my heart and soul. When I think of Charles Jacobs—my fifth business, my change agent, my nemesis—I can’t bear to believe his presence in my life had anything to do with fate. It would mean that all these terrible things—these horrors—were meant to happen. If that is so, then there is no such thing as light, and our belief in it is a foolish illusion. If that is so, we live in darkness like animals in a burrow, or ants deep in their hill.

And not alone.

Why This Works

Now, let’s go through the checklist:

Opening hook: Clever writing and image that grabs the reader. Kind of an interesting analogy and introduction of the idea of a “fifth business” character. The hook comes in the last paragraph when the protagonist mentions the “horrors” that have taken place in his life. The reader will want to know what’s happened and how the fifth business, Charles Jacobs, plays into those scenarios.

Introduction of main character in first few lines: Written in first-person POV so the protagonist’s voice is heard from the beginning, but we’re told little about him beyond his belief that our lives are like movies and that sometimes we encounter someone who doesn’t fit into the usual categories. We’re not told this character’s name, what he does, or who he is. But we are told in no uncertain terms that something terrible has happened due to his involvement with Jacobs.

Starting the story in the middle of something that’s happened (or happening): Horrors have taken place. The reader is given that much information, but no more.

A nod to setting; avoid excessive exposition or narrative: No setting established for the scene.

A catalyst, inciting incident, or complication introduced for your character: He is grappling with the idea that the horrors he’s experienced may not be coincidence but rather fate, which leaves him with the fear that we may live in darkness with someone directing the horrors.

A hint at character’s immediate intentions: Possibly to determine whether coincidence or fate is in control? The reader is given the idea that perhaps the character needs to unravel what’s happened to him—figure it out and attempt to make sense of it. But we don’t have any indication of what his actual intentions are.

A hint at character’s hidden need, desire, goal, dream, fear: The protagonist clearly fears the idea of living in darkness—the idea of fate designing and directing the horrors of his life. Which leads us to believe he wants and needs to extricate Jacobs from his life. We’re not sure, though, whether he’s still dealing with “all these terrible things” or if it’s in the past.

Unique voice/writing style: The author’s voice is distinctive. Fans of Stephen King will recognize his author’s voice through his character’s narration.

Setting the tone for the book: Definitely. We are expecting trouble, and what the character hints at doesn’t disappoint. King is the master of his genre.

A glimpse at character’s personal history, personality—shed light on motivation: Yes, the character is likely a thinker, one who observes life and applies what he’s seen to his own circumstances. He is fearful—a victim of something dark.

Hint of character’s initial plot goal: Again, possibly the plot is about the protagonist unraveling, figuring out, what’s happened to him. Making sense of the nonsensical. We don’t know, though, if he is now in the midst of all this and struggling to find escape or if this has all resolved in the past.

A course of action/decision implied. Introduction of high stakes/dramatic tension: The implication is that the stakes are life and death. The tension is felt as the reader encounters the word horrors and the idea that they may have been destined or preordained.

Good pacing; jump right into present action:  There is no real action here. It’s all musing. There is backstory, but it’s part of the character’s process of thinking about his life and setting up the conflict for the novel.

  • One characteristic to reveal that makes your character heroic and vulnerable: His fear makes him vulnerable, along with the implications of things that have happened to him. No sense of the heroic yet—although, maybe that he’s survived to tell this story makes him heroic.
  • One element of mystery, something hinted at that raises curiosity: Definitely. What’s happened to this man? What role does his “nemesis” have in the horrors that took place?
  • One element out of the ordinary, unusual, that makes your book different/stand out: The idea that we may each have a “fifth business” will draw readers in and help them relate to the character.
  • Concise, catchy dialogue (if in the first scene) that is not boring or predictable: No dialogue.
  • A way to hint at your theme, if you have one: Yes, it comes in the last sentence—the idea that we are not alone—that fate might direct our lives. Is life just chance meetings or is some greater power in control—and subjecting us to terrible things?

What Could Have Been Better

Far be it from me to have any complaints against the writing of the great Stephen King, but that’s my challenge in these posts. I certainly don’t mean to come across as a know-it-all; really, many of my comments in these posts are personal responses to these first pages as a reader and not so much as an editor. But caveat aside, let’s take a look at a few things here.

The long first paragraph is there to build up to the main point the character is making about fate. While the hypothetical and philosophical can get readers starting to ponder about all this, it is a bit of a risk. Stephen King can easily say to faithful fans: “Bear with me a moment while I posit something interesting for you to consider”—which is basically what his character is doing. Avid fans will gladly bear with him. They are confident he’s going to deliver some interesting hypothesis or conclusion.

But I might doubt that an unknown author, maybe with a first novel, who is trying to attract fans to his book will have such success. The hook for the opening isn’t in the first line or the first paragraph. It’s down at the bottom of the first page. I think he could have shortened up the explanation with just two lines, something like “Our lives are populated with characters, major and minor, that drift in and out and play either important or insignificant roles, but sometimes . . .”

And, for me, there is a bit of disjointedness between those characters he speaks of—who play those roles—with that one unexpected character that might crop up to upend everything. I don’t see how that kind of character is any different from the others. People pop into our lives all the time—some who impact us in a positive way and others who cause us grief. In a way, he’s saying all those in the first group are either friends or harmless background elements. But then someone might come along who is truly bad.

King uses the term “fifth business,” but from my understanding, he’s not really using it correctly. (The novel Fifth Business by Robertson Davies was a favorite of mine during my teen years). A dramatic role, the “fifth business” character is neither ally nor nemesis. Rather, he/she is the catalyst or means for the protagonist to come to his essence, or clear understanding that leads to denouement. So it’s a little muddled to have his character call Jacobs both his “change agent” and nemesis. Maybe that’s splitting hairs, but I’d prefer he avoid the dramatic term, which few people are probably familiar with, and stick to nemesis.

Really, Jamie—the protagonist who is not named for a while—is trying to say that his encounter with this evil man was so horrible that he couldn’t bear to think fate planned it. Again, King waxes a bit too philosophic for me. Right after the last line of the first section (next page), King then jumps way back in time to when Jamie is six, and tells about how he got a set of plastic Army men for his birthday. That line—”and not alone”—is vague to me.

Okay, if there is no loving God (implied) and we’re subject to random, impersonal fate that could recklessly bring evil into our lives, we’re really living like animals in burrows in the dark . . . and not alone. Huh? Does that confuse you too? It could mean, yes, we lot are all in this darkness together. Or it could mean those evil people are in there with us.

I’m guessing he means the latter, but I think it would help to be clearer and not go for the “impacting” clever (?) phrase “we are not alone.” In other words, that phrase, because of being so vague, loses impact because it’s unclear what’s it’s implying.

All in all, King’s attempt to draw readers in by having his character philosophize about fate, while interesting, doesn’t do much to reveal who his character is. I’d really like a bit on that. By shortening that whole discussion and then hinting a bit at what Jacobs did to him or what life Jamie had led when they met or when Jacobs reentered his life would have interested me more.

In all honesty, after reading a few pages, I probably would have quit. I’m not enough of a King fan to keep muddling through pages of backstory and excessive narrative. Within a few pages of kind of boring six-year-old stuff, young Jamie meets the new minister, Jacobs, who’s moved into this unnamed town (it also bothers me he doesn’t do anything to set up the locale for many pages). My guess is that if someone else wrote the opening pages and submitted them to agents or publishers, that author would be staring down a stack of rejection letters.

Do I find Jamie empathetic on page 1, enough for me to start caring about him? A little. Clearly he’s been the victim of some unfortunate circumstance, and his vulnerability and doubts make him approachable. But I could use a bit more to care. Especially if I have to wade through pages of backstory before I get to any scene that’s interesting. Again, fans will be forgiving and patient. But not all of us writers can count on our readers to be as patient if we start off our novel this way.

As I mentioned in the first-page analysis of one of John Grisham’s novels: faithful readers won’t care so much about any of this. They assume their fave author is going to deliver between the covers and are content to plod along in expectation and see how the plot plays out. Which is great. But again, a new or unknown writer may not want to take the chance that readers will be so patient with a slow or boring opening page (or three).

Thoughts? Did you find the opening engaging? Jamie’s voice and character intriguing? Is the mystery of Jacobs and the horrible things that occurred enough to make you want to keep reading?

6 Responses to “First Pages of Best-Selling Novels: Revival”

  1. Maggie Smith March 30, 2016 at 8:28 am #

    I couldn’t agree more. That’s one of the things that’s frustrating about being a new novelist; you’re told to keep away from endless narrative, early flashbacks, etc. and yet you see popular artists using these techniques often. It’s sometimes hard to know which voice whispering in your ear to listen to.

  2. Dennis Kearney March 30, 2016 at 10:27 am #

    I think you are wise to keep beating us over the head with the checklist, and pointing out why established authors get to break the rules. Any of us struggling writers should heed your advice. If we’re lucky, someday we’ll get to the break the rules, and do it knowing you were right all along.

    • Glen Donaldson March 30, 2016 at 1:23 pm #

      I bought Stephen King’s recently released collection of short stories (some are more than 60 pages long!) THE BAZAAR OF BAD DREAMS. I found the writing style to be so overblown and ‘wordy’ I could not finish many of the stories. Agree with everything you wrote.

  3. Linda Kasten March 30, 2016 at 4:49 pm #

    When I first began reading this choice, I thought I must be slipping in my own critique because I didn’t want to read past the first couple of sentences and actually didn’t, skipping right to your comments. I have enjoyed your other examples and couldn’t imagine why you chose this one, but soon found out why. I am not a Stephen King fan or one of his readers, and this certainly would not have attracted me to be one. With that said, I would also never count on my “fame” to do the work for me as far as attracting readers. I would strive to give them a riveting open to every book.

  4. JK Mikals April 2, 2016 at 12:49 pm #

    I really appreciate your taking on Big Writers. I have occasionally thought one or two of the emperors lacked a few sartorial necessities, but who am I to judge? Just a reader. And Big Publishing doesn’t pay me to do that.
    Thanks for the wonderful analyses and the terrific checklists.

  5. Madeline M September 17, 2016 at 12:49 pm #

    I was distracted by something right before reading the first page excerpt, and when I came back to it I had forgotten what I was reading (even that it was a novel). I read the first two sentences and thought – this is boring, what am I reading?

    I’ve never read any of King’s novels, but I did read “On Writing” and found it very interesting and well written, so I was a little surprised when I remembered what I was reading.

    I think that, as suggested, it would have been much better to summarize the first paragraph in a partial sentence that segues directly into the next paragraph.

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