The First Five Pages
You’ve learned so much from classes and workshops. Your work reads fluently, your imagery links to theme, you’re in love with your characters, but you just know those first five pages could be stronger. And you also know that the first five pages of your manuscript can make or break you. What do you do?
It’s not like you haven’t been over them a thousand times before. You may have been working on this book for years all ready. There’s a good bit later on where the story really takes off, but the opening pages need to accomplish so much.
They’re a promise to your readers of the kind of journey they can expect if they buy the golden ticket—your book. That sounds like it should be fun to write—and it can be—but too often the sheer joy of storytelling gets bogged down in the mire of the list of must-haves:
- An opening line that shocks, surprises, hooks or otherwise provokes a question in the reader’s mind
- A character that the reader can get behind as early as possible, either because they like them, feel sorry for them, or are fascinated by them.
- Communicate the central question of the book: Who committed the murder? Will the music prodigy win a place to the exclusive music school that will set him on the path to fame and fortune? How was an ancient artifact stolen from a sealed room custom built without doors or windows?
- Create an appropriate atmosphere. If you’re writing a noir thriller it would be wrong for the first five pages to read like a romantic comedy.
- A strong ‘voice’. There are many tools that help with this—picking the right point of view, unfold the story world and problem filtered through the attitude and perspective of your protagonist. A fisherman notices different things at the scene of a shipwreck than a tourist does. He’s likely to have a different vocabulary, too. Our obsessions cause us to inadvertently notice some things and not notice others. The chips on our shoulders make us react differently to the same stimuli. Know what pushes your protagonist’s buttons. And know what he would like written on his tombstone when he dies. Also know what he jokes is likely to be written on his tombstone. Two very different things.
- There’s also a way of parsing out new ‘hooks’ or twists, making sure they appear just at the points where a casual reader might put the book down:
- In the first line
- At the end of the first paragraph
- At the end of the first page
- At the bottom of each of your first five pages.
- At the end of the first chapter.
But there’s a danger, in following rules too faithfully, that your otherwise unique voice will start to sound drearily familiar. These hooks don’t have to be dead bodies or some other heavy-handed attempt to grab the reader’s attention. They may be as simple as subverting the reader’s expectation of what a person with a particular occupation might say or do in a given situation. The janitor who stops mopping the floor of a deserted university hallway to complete a complex math problem left on a chalkboard is going to have my attention for at least another page (“Good Will Hunting”).
I learned from a master teacher, Mary Buckham, and in June (7-18th) she’s repeating her online class, MASTER CLASS: The First Five Pages at WriterUniv.com. The best news is that it’s only $55 instead of the heftier price of a workshop where you have to pay for a hotel, too. I hope a lot of you will head on over and find out more about:
- What hooks are
- How to identify hooks in your writing
- Using them in the right places
- Creating an empathetic character
- What’s the goal and is it clear
- Setting the stage to anchor the reader
- Creating story questions
- Break Into Fiction: 11 Steps to Building a Story That Sells, by Mary Buckham and Dianna Love
- The First Five Pages, by Noah Lukeman
- Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King