16 May 2016

Your first 5 pages

You've heard it before, but it bears repeating: whether you start on a prologue or Chapter 1, the opening of your novel is important. It's what's going to either hook an agent, a publisher, and a reader or help them decide that your book isn't for them. A good first line is important, but if it's followed by several paragraphs of background information to set up your world or character, you're going to lose us. We want to feel something - shock, amusement, curiosity, fear, excitement - and we want to get invested.

As a result of my participation in a Twitter contest and The Work Conference, I've read a lot of people's first five pages in the last couple of months, which led me to reflect on what makes excellent first five pages.

And, in short, it is this:

The first five pages of your novel should be rooted in a scene with a goal and stakes; convey a strong sense of voice, emotion, and setting; either include a catalyst or the promise of one coming soon that's related to the primary conflict and/or include a mystery or question that the reader is invested in.

[Update 6 June 2016] One more thing. If your first five pages contains your main character, then we should also get at least a hint about what internal conflict or flaw s/he will need to overcome in order to triumph in the primary conflict.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this. Any questions about what I mean? Anything you'd add? Do you know of a novel published within the last five years that hooked you with its beginning but doesn't fit the above description?


  1. You've read mine, and I labor under the delusion I've done just what you suggest. Its a necessary step but realize it may still fail to get one over the "not for me" hump with a given contest judge, literary agent, acquisitions editor or a garden-variety reader (which for whom is part and parcel of why we do what we do!)

    One thing that I've found frustratingly subjective is the POV character in those first pages. One school of thought says the very first scene *must* be from the main character's POV. But another school of thought says a book must begin with the inciting incident or destabilizing event. In my book, the first chapter is from the antagonist's POV because he is responsible for (and the one most immediately affected by) the inciting incident. But for what he sees and what he does as a result, the rest of the book simply doesn't happen. My female protagonist is prominently featured in the *next* chapter, though, but only those judges/agents/editors who request more than the first five pages will see that.

    That said, I'm still confident I've told the story I wanted to tell in the way I wanted to tell it (although I'm always open to feedback suggesting how to do that better.) And I know that the story I've written is not the kind of story everyone will want to read, especially those who insist the first chapter must be told from the main character's POV.