First Pages of Best-Selling Novels: The Selection

Each week, we’ve been taking a look at the first page of best-selling novels of various genres and seeing how they measure up to my first-page checklist.

This week, I grabbed a Young Adult title that’s gone ballistic, launching a series that has teens drooling for more. Kiera Cass’s The Selection is listed under the Sci-Fi/Fantasy genre, but is more accurately slotted in the Dystopian subgenre for teens.

One reviewer calls Cass’s series “Reality TV meets dystopian fairy tale.” And another describes it as a cross between The Hunger Games and The Bachelor (TV show) but without the blood and guts.

While I considered looking at the current volume (The Crown), which is also a big best seller, I thought it a good idea to examine the first book’s first page.

Here’s the Amazon description of the story line:

For thirty-five girls, the Selection is the chance of a lifetime. The opportunity to escape the life laid out for them since birth. To be swept up in a world of glittering gowns and priceless jewels. To live in a palace and compete for the heart of gorgeous Prince Maxon.

But for America Singer, being Selected is a nightmare. It means turning her back on her secret love with Aspen, who is a caste below her. Leaving her home to enter a fierce competition for a crown she doesn’t want. Living in a palace that is constantly threatened by violent rebel attacks.

Then America meets Prince Maxon. Gradually, she starts to question all the plans she’s made for herself—and realizes that the life she’s always dreamed of may not compare to a future she never imagined.

Let’s take a look at Cass’s first page, and then we’ll use my first-page checklist to see why this works.

 

Chapter 1

When we got the letter in the post, my mother was ecstatic. She had already decided that all our problems were solved, gone forever. The big hitch in her brilliant plan was me. I didn’t think I was a particularly disobedient daughter, but this was where I drew the line.

I didn’t want to be royalty. And I didn’t want to be a One. I didn’t even want to try.

I hid in my room, the only place to avoid the chattering of our full house, trying to come up with an argument that would sway her. So far, I had a solid collection of my honest opinions . . . I didn’t think there was a single one she would listen to.

I couldn’t avoid her much longer. It was approaching dinnertime, and as the oldest child left in the house, cooking duties fell on me. I pulled myself out of bed and walked into the snake pit.

I got a glare from Mom but no words.

We did a silent dance through the kitchen and dining room as we prepared chicken, pasta, and apple slices, and set the table for five. If I glanced up from a task, she’d fix me with a fierce look as if she could shame me into wanting the same things she did. She tried that every so often. Like if I didn’t want to take on a particular job because I knew the family hosting us was unnecessarily rude. Or if she wanted me to do a massive cleaning when we couldn’t afford to have a Six come and help.

Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it didn’t. And this was one area where I was unswayable.

She couldn’t stand it when I was stubborn. But I got that from her, so she shouldn’t have been surprised. This wasn’t just about me, though. Mom had been tense lately. The summer was ending, and soon we’d be faced with cold. And worry.

Why This Works

Opening Hook: Strong opening hinting at a serious problem and a possible solution. The line “The big hitch in her brilliant plan was me” creates mystery. Readers want to know: Just what is the conflict being set up?

Introduction of main character in first few lines: As is the norm for YA, this story is in first person, so while we don’t get America’s name, her voice quickly gives a good feel of her character. We hear her opinions right away, which are strong. She introduces herself, essentially, to the reader by saying what she is and what she’s not.

Starting the story in the middle of something that’s happened (or happening): Clearly there’s a situation and an opportunity has presented itself that centers on the protagonist and promises conflict.

A nod to setting; avoid excessive exposition or narrative: We don’t see much of the setting (the second page tells us the name of her country). We know she’s in a house, and it’s implied it’s not her family’s home (“the family hosting us . . .” hints that maybe they move from home to home, working as domestics). But we don’t need to see much of the setting yet to get right into the story. Which is right for this genre.

A catalyst, inciting incident, or complication introduced for your character: Yes, a letter’s arrived that will give America a chance at being royalty.

A hint at character’s immediate intentions: She doesn’t want to compete to become royalty. She feels strongly about this and thinks how to convince her mom to leave her alone.

A hint at character’s hidden need, desire, goal, dream, fear: We’re only told what she doesn’t want. She doesn’t want to be royalty or a One. She seems to want to keep the status quo and get by. She cares about her family and maybe there is a fear behind her not wanting to compete, but we don’t know what that might be at this point.

Unique voice/writing style: The writing style and POV fits the YA genre well. It may not be all that unique, but it’s wholly appropriate.

Setting the tone for the book: It seems clear America’s personality and voice are setting the tone for the book. She’s introspective and expresses her feelings in a clear and honest manner. YA readers want quick bonding with the protagonist, so this is a good tone.

A glimpse at character’s personal history, personality—shed light on motivation: Her personality comes across well on this opening page. She knows her mind and intent. We see how she deals with her mother and that she’s concerned about helping and about their economic and class situation. Yet she knows she’s stubborn and it’s worth the conflict to stand up for how she feels in this situation.

Hint of character’s initial plot goal: To avoid having to participate in the competition to become royalty.

A course of action/decision implied. Introduction of high stakes/dramatic tension: Course of action is to turn down the invitation to the competition, and stakes are set with both her mom wanting her to compete and America’s awareness of how her winning could greatly help her family’s economic situation. This creates good tension and high stakes already for her.

Good pacing; jump right into present action. No backstory: Action doesn’t really start until the next page, but the pacing is good; we quickly see the situation unfolding. Instead of showing in real time, the details are told as backstory, so we are told instead of shown, for the most part.

  • One characteristic to reveal that makes your character heroic and vulnerable: She admits she’s stubborn, and she is determined to stick to her guns regarding the competition she’s been invited to.
  • One element of mystery, something hinted at that raises curiosity: What’s this competition all about, and why wouldn’t America want to compete?
  • One element out of the ordinary, unusual, that makes the book different/stand out: This is a unique premise—girls invited to compete to become royalty, to marry the prince.
  • Concise, catchy dialogue (if in the first scene) that is not boring or predictable: No dialogue.
  • A hint at theme: We get a sense of a twist on the Cinderella story and happily ever after. Should America long for fame, riches, and financial security? Should she be willing to do something she doesn’t want for the good of her family? Obligation, sacrifice, and issues surrounding class distinction, beauty, and competition hint at possible themes for this novel.

What Could Have Been Better

I feel this is a pretty strong opening. While it fits the genre in many ways, it could have been stronger if Cass got right into the present action. Perhaps have the letter arrive and show what happens. Or if using that opening bit (which is a good hook), go right into showing the argument they have about the letter (which comes a page later).

Writing in first person often tempts authors to tell and explain rather than show. So deep in the character’s mind, the thought process can often overtake a scene. Instead of Cass spending most of the first page having America say what she did when the letter came rather than show it, I feel, is much weaker than playing out the action.

Which is something I’m sure you’ve heard me harp about week after week on my blog. We are taught “show, don’t’ tell,” and, sure, you can go overboard with rules like this, but I think this would be a stronger first page if done that way.

Some other things:

That paragraph about hiding in the room could be shortened. “I hid in my room, the only place to avoid the chattering of our full house, trying to think of an argument to throw at my mom, but when dinnertime approached, I pulled myself out of bed . . .”

I like the implication that they work in this house. I think it could use a more direct visual to show they are, essentially, servants and of a low class. And accompany it with a strong emotion from America.

I would emphasize much stronger how difficult their circumstance is. I’d get the trouble with Dad trying to make ends meet (comes on the next page), the ignominy of their low caste. Bringing in interesting world-building bits, such as the caste system and the violence and unrest in their new government, would help set the stage right away.

Also, the description of the novel says she has a crush, so the idea of competing to marry the prince threatens her relationship with Aspen. I think that is a more pressing concern and source of potential pain and conflict than her dancing around her mother, trying to avoid talking about the letter.

That said, I would take out the long paragraph about preparing dinner and setting the table (ordinary, on the nose activity). Too much time is spent on this tension between her and her mother. All that needs showing is a line or two of dialogue—such as the good one on the next page: “Would it kill you to fill out the form? . . . The Selection could be a wonderful opportunity for you, for all of us.” That would be great at the top of page 1 instead. And then show America’s response.

What I’m essentially saying is what many writing coaches say: don’t start off a scene explaining, and then a page or two later start in on the action. Cass could have taken everything out on this first page up to that line of dialogue (above) and started the novel right there, showing the tension and present action.

Much more effective, grabbing, and visual.

Show, don’t tell. Show she’s stubborn, just like her mom; don’t tell me that. I want to see her behave.

America says, “This is where I draw the line.” Great, strong emotion. But I want to have a hint at why, what’s most important to her, what her core need is, her deepest fear. Yes, these can all come out on a first page. Just a hint, a line here or there.

Why do I have these things on my first-page checklist? Because they foment bonding with the protagonist, and the key to winning readers’ hearts and attention is to get them to empathize as quickly (page 1) as possible with the character.

Readers turn pages when they care about the characters. Simple as that. All the greatest, most exciting action in the world will bore most readers if they have no one to care about in the midst of that action.

So few writers accomplish this in their opening pages. If you focus on any one thing as you rework your first page, aim to inspire empathy. Make your character vulnerable. If you do that, more than half the battle of writing a great opening scene is won.

Thoughts on this first page? What did you like? What didn’t work for you?

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

  1. Kathleen O'Donnell June 8, 2016 at 7:18 am #

    I would’ve liked some dialogue and less passive voice. I think the lack of dialogue and all the passive voice drags down the prose. Rather than tell the reader her mother “was ecstatic” (a passive sentence right off the bat) she could’ve shown us that in conversation. I do think the story (and story is KING) seems promising though.

    BTW…I am a new subscriber to your blog and love it! I look forward to every post. Thank you for sharing.

    • cslakin June 8, 2016 at 7:42 am #

      Hi Kathleen, welcome! Glad to have you join us. I hope you get a chance to look back through the twenty-four previous looks at first pages. There are a lot of great examples of what works and what doesn’t.

      • Kathleen O'Donnell June 8, 2016 at 8:30 am #

        Great! I will definitely look at the older posts. Thank you.

  2. Mary Kate June 8, 2016 at 12:57 pm #

    I bought this book because I really did like this opening. It was a good hook, and thoroughly readable.

    That being said, the rest of the book was quite disappointing. I finished it, which is more than I can say for some, but am having trouble understanding this series’ popularity.

    I love this series that you do. Would you ever consider doing something similar for unpublished authors? Evaluating their first pages?

    • cslakin June 8, 2016 at 1:05 pm #

      Hi Mary, of course I do this full-time for a living. I do more than 200 critiques a year, partial and full manuscripts. You can pay for a ten-page critique (that’s my minimum) via my critique site: http://www.critiquemymanuscript.com. Thanks!

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