The following is the outline I used to give a lecture on what I discovered from writing this blog on the FIRST TEN PAGES. It was for my graduate lecture  in creative writing, on a analytical topic of my choice. I chose to discover common elements that occur within the first ten pages of a novel and what an emerging writer can learn to apply it to their own work. If you are one of my classmates and would like a PDF copy, or if you have any questions, send me an email at:


Bryan Burch – First Ten Pages – Lecture Outline – June 6, 2010

1 Good Morning

2    The title of my lecture is: First Ten Pages: (It is) A Discovery of the Novel’s First Ten Pages from Dickens to DiLillo, The Good Earth to The Bad Seed and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to The Picture of Dorian Gray

3   History – Why this topic?

  1. Tin House internship
  2. TH submissions not better or worse than most student work
    1. i.     Usually lacking specificity and direction and support of overall theme
  3. In reading successful (published) work…aware of what DIDN’T WORK as well as WHAT DID
  4. created blog – to hold reading discoveries and make analysis

4    What I looked for: (REFER TO WEBSITE ON SCREEN)

  1. What happens in the first sentence – where am I? who am I with? what’s wrong?
  2. What happens in the first ten pages – how support opening? how intentionally narrow?
  3. Narrative Voice –
    1. i.     POV
      1. 1st, 2nd, 3rd
      2. Distance / how close – how far?
    2. ii.     Perspective: WHO is telling the story – (how close is this entity?)
    3. iii.     Is narrator neutral? Is narrator a character? Is narrator reliable?
      1. Hairstyles of the Damned = awkward first person narrator, but sure of his role in his world (immediate)
      2. Twilight – Bella’s diary (distant)
      3. Lord Jim – the distant Arab storyteller who slowly moves forward
      4. Picture of Dorian Gray / Unknown Ubiquitous – like a stage manager


From Susan Bell, The Artful Edit

  1. Language – suitable to events, agreeable, high falutin, too many adjectives, active verbs
  2. Setting!!! – how quickly am I grounded in location? what is wrong with this picture?
  3. Character – Who are they in relation to setting? Do they belong? right place, wrong time?
  4. Structure (Rhythm, Tension supporting plot)
  5. Prologue, Thematic Preamble or other freakish elements (trying to divert my attention)
  6. Foreshadowing & Plot expectations beyond page ten
  7. Random Comments –
    1. i.     Cover Art – Picture – Author / Title – blurbs
    2. ii.     Have I seen the movie,
    3. iii.     Wiki facts
    4. iv.     What percent of book did 10 pages equal

5   What didn’t work (from reading Tin House submissions)

  1. Postponing vital (or conflict causing) information in lieu of a lengthy description
    1. i.     (establishing something provocative, then saying: “but I’ll get to that later”)
  2. Front loading facts over action
    1. i.     (description of car when more important to relate the person she just ran over)
  3. Action for the sake of description
    1. i.     (step by step process when simple jump cut will do) (hallway image)
  4. Attention to detail above all else
    1. i.     (instead of tension and interference between character and environment)
    2. ii.     (say more with implication than with description!!)
  5. Action for description’s sake as result of tension between characters
    1. i.     “She shook her head until it wobbled like a toy. She wiggled back and forth in front of him like one of those spring loaded Slinky dogs.”
    2. ii.     OR: “There was nothing he could say to make her stop. She shook her head so hard he wanted to slap her. She would deserve it.”
  6. Unattributed dialogue / attributed late in the sentence @ a new character entrance

6      Setting, Character, Action… Example of classic beginning in first 3 paragraphs –

  1. Song of the Loon by Richard Amory [show book]
  2. first paragraph describes a brilliant river-forest setting
  3. second paragraph describes a muscular, copper-headed man paddling against the current
  4. third paragraph unfolds as the canoeing man is drawn to shore by the sound of a wooden flute and into the, sinewy arms of Singing Heron
  5. One. Two. Three. Setting is presented, character is produced, and the influence of setting upon character creates tension via choice. Woods + man in woods + unusual sound of flute in woods = tension and discovery unfolding into plot
  6. Can I get an Amen!


7    Setting

  1. Where are we? (only need enough information to initiate reader’s imagination)
  2. If I don’t know where I am, the story is poop!
  3. [show book] Richard Russo – EMPIRE FALLS: The Empire Grill was long and low-slung, with windows that ran its entire length, and since the building next door, a Rexall drugstore, had been condemned and razed, it was now possible to sit at the lunch counter and see straight down Empire Avenue all the way to the old textile mill and its adjacent shirt factory.
    1. i.     Strong sense of Narrative authority: This narrator knows what he’s talking about, is familiar with town, has affection for people, is unbiased but forgiving, has seen everyone in their underwear

8     85% = establish setting within the first sentence

  1. Setting is the grounding aspect from which all elements can grow toward or away from

9    Character

  1. Socio-economic status
  2. Does character belong in setting? Or not? (the less they belong the more tension created)
  3. Notice how characters exist in his perfect world: Captain Ahab on a ship (not stagecoach), Scarlett O’Hara = rural Georgia, Dorothy Gale in OZ, not Riviera Hotel
  4. [show book] Cormac McCarthy THE ROAD: When he awoke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray / each one than what had gone before.
  5. Notice how location and character are woven together
  6. Notice how different these two sentences are! [repeat key words]

TRANSITION / RECAP: Setting + character = tension (via choice), creates action

Stories that fail, describe setting, character & action

Stories that succeed, smash setting against character until they are so uncomfortable somebody must… CHOOSE. (Example: Pick your favorite food… now go get it — in 10 min or less)


10    Action

  1. What is the Immediate perspective of a character in a particular location
  2. Does it seem natural and appropriate?
  3. Do I understand what is going on?
  4. [show book] Don Dillo – FALLING MAN: It was not a street anymore but a world, a time and space of falling ash and near night. He was walking north through rubble and mud and there were people running past holding towels to their faces or jackets over their heads.
  5. Not Pink Elephant! (not a street)

11   15% remainder: 5% = character only, 10% = hybrid

  1. 10% = hybrid where narrator/char perception or conflicted mental state puts character over setting (but clearly within a setting of some type)
  2. Falling Man = the negative space of “not a street”
  3. Living Dead Girl = midst of vague, haunting memory where the narrator recalls “…the last time I was home…” which ultimately cues up an anti-home setting in a home-less construct that resonates throughout the story

12   5% = character only

  1. character is so absorbed in himself that setting is a non-existent feature
  2. Haruki Murakami, A Wild Sheep Chase – no setting, no landmarks…
    1. i.     Narrator = uninvolved with own story
    2. ii.     Narrating from his past without referring to himself
    3. iii.     Events exist as random mental notations and emotional reminiscences
    4. iv.     reader stays on the outside…(like a bank statement, not $$$)
  3. A well drawn character must relate to place they inhabit whether they enjoy it or not
  4. Even the most self-centered or megalomaniacal personalities, who view themselves as the center of the universe, require a universe in which to be the center of

13   85 / 10/ 5

  1. Kinsey and Masters & Johnson breakdown of social collectiveness in humans and animals
  2. 85% = hetero, 10% = cross over, 5% = homo
  3. Race track, casino: 85% = losers, 10% = breakeven, 5% = winners
  4. Why? As early people lived close to earth. Socio integration = vital to survival. Must know tribal affinity. MUST KNOW PLACE IN WORLD!!
  5. As people migrate to city… leave ID of “clan”… assume ID of Cleveland, London, Beijing
  6. the 15% = character as defining feature – focus on inner complexity of solitary individual



  1. most stories have 10 page beginning section (chapter, segment, whatever)
  2. One does not have to be gifted to write a good story – one must be consistent and true to the world they create
  3. Everything must eventually relate back to the larger theme of story (power, control, indiscretion)
  4. Narrow and specific
  5. Thematic Preamble – like overture to musical or operetta
    1. i.      echoes overall theme of book
    2. ii.     The Cider House Rules naming fable: handed down from generation to generation, the preamble illuminates the naming process at St. Cloud’s orphanage where Homer Wells will be born later in the first chapter.
    3. iii.     Heart is a Lonely Hunter – two deaf/mute roommates
  6. Consistency: constant refinement for consistency
    1. i.     Good stories move toward a good ending
    2. ii.     Good stories don’t reveal the ending
    3. iii.     Good storytelling keeps narrow bandwidth, otherwise fall apart due to searching for new material
    4. iv.     Surprise and discovery are good… but without consistent thread story spins out beyond the scope of a story’s reality
      1. Gone With Wind = “I want what I want because I deserve it!”
  7. My blood pressure changes as Authorial Voice settles into my ear –
    1. i.     authority, confidence, intimacy
    2. ii.     TRIANGLE: reliability between the reader, the narrator and the story
      1. (Agatha Christie or Dick Francis story)
  8. Intimacy passing between the reader and narrator/character
    1. i.     (first person narrators are big on this – Twilight, Mrs. Dalloway, Lolita,
    2. ii.     but also Margaret Atwood or F. Scott Fitzgerald in Tender is Night or Last Tycoon
  9. elusive plasticity through which the reader passes in and out of the story
    1. i.     (Saturday – Ian McEwan. One Hundred Years of Solitude, Stuart Little)

TWENTY-FIVE MINUTES – 5 min warning


  1. novels are about character (even if character is kitchen sink), but they are about PLACE first
  2. Make inconsistencies facts (it will create future tension)
  3. Start narrow, stay narrow to maximize credibility
    1. i.     Bandwidth of believability:
    2. ii.     Catcher/Rye: “I’m not going to tell you anything I don’t want to…”
    3. iii.     100 Years Solitude: “facing the firing squad” (entire country is facing destruction and yet miraculously continues living)
  4. Implication… With how few words can I create place/character using as much implication as possible?
  5. Be specific over descriptive (broadens reader’s ability to co-create story with narrator)
  6. Break it down! How does each sentence support the whole
    1. i.     Microcosm / Macrocosm … Acorn to Oak
    2. ii.     Beginning = microcosm of entire book’s DNA
  7. Ignore what I think the reader needs to know…instead, enmesh & entangle… force character to choose
  8. Co-creation of environment – narrator with reader
    1. i.     “in the woods” conjures “woods” experience “in the dark and cold of the night”
    2. ii.     Use of common elements: shopping cart example  – different from our experience
    3. iii.     Falling Man: 9/11 media representations of twin towers events – etched in reader’s mind
    4. iv.     Empire Grill: Feels like an ordinary description, but calculated to induce feeling of normal & OK. Makes “condemned and razed” sound convenient and cozy…


  1. Consider a story you like… how does it begin? How does the ending reflect the beginning?
  2. Take books
  3. Questions


Stories Blogged 19/33

Stories Read not blogged 5/23

total 24/56


Love Story: “What can you say about a twenty-five year old girl who died?”

The Inheritance of Loss: “All day, the colors had been those of dusk, mist moving like a water creature across the great flanks of mountains possessed of ocean shadows and depths.”

Mrs, Dalloway: “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.”

Ragtime: “In 1902 Father built a house at the crest of the Broadview Avenue hill in New Rochelle, New York.”

All’s Quiet on the Western Front: “We are at rest five miles behind the front.”

Bad Seed: “Later that summer, when Mrs. Penmark looked back and remembered, when she was caught up in despair so deep that she knew there was no way out, no solution whatever for the circumstances that encompassed her, it seemed to her that June seventh, the day of the Fern Grammar School picnic, was the last time had she known contentment or felt peace.”

Await Your Reply “We are on our way to the hospital, Ryan’s father says. Listen to me, Son: You are not going to bleed to death.”

1 Comment

Filed under first10pages review


  1. This outline is fascinating. I like that you took a small bit of information and made some sense of it. I think it would make a great checklist for writers to use when submitting to publications like Tin House.

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