Your First Five Pages
A writer pointed out today that when you send a novel to an agent or publisher, they normally ask for the first five or ten pages, just so that they can gauge your writing skill. If those pages don’t grab the reader, it won’t sell. So, he wondered, what do I look for in those first five pages?
As an editor, I read thousands of stories a year, and it would be difficult to tell you all of the ways that you can go wrong, or all of the things that you can do right. But let’s hit some main points:
1) From the very first sentence, I want to see that you’re not just a competent writer, but a skillful one. I want to see that you “have a way with words,” so that I feel as if I’m in the hands of a professional storyteller. That means that I won’t feel confused, and I won’t get tripped up by typos or beginner’s mistakes. Indeed, I want to see that you’re talented right from the first sentence. Half of the editors and agents say that they look for a “great voice” right out the gate, whether it be the voice of the narrating character or of the author.
2) I want to know (or at least have some great hints) where and when the story is taking place. It helps if the setting is intriguing and beautifully drawn. Of course, when you bring that setting to life, you should appeal to most of the senses quickly—sight, sound, smell, touch, taste.
3) I want to know who the protagonist is and I want to see you handling the viewpoint properly. This means that the protagonist moves, has an emotional state, and thinks, so that we aren’t seeing the tale from a camera’s point of view, but from a real person’s. More than that, it is often helpful if the character is likable or interesting or even both.
4) In the opening five pages, I must see a hint of an intriguing conflict, one that is already building toward a climax. To get that in quickly, this means that you almost need to start the story in media res.*
5) In my business as a science fiction and fantasy editor, I want to see some novelty—something that tells me that your work is original, that you’re capable of coming up with something new.
Now, that’s my short list. I could go on and suggest that I want to see that you know how to construct a scene, that you can dazzle the reader in subtle ways that most pros know, that you know how to construct a plot, that you tastefully insert the emotional draws your audience is hoping for, that you are a pro at constructing believable dialog—and a dozen other little things.
But as you can see, for the first five pages, I can only hope for so much. All that I really want is to be convinced that you’re one of the greatest discoveries that I’ve ever made. If you think that an agent or editor wants anything less, you’re mistaken. The truth is that every editor and every agent who reads your manuscript is hoping that your tale demands to be published.
*A narrative work beginning in medias res (Classical Latin: [ɪn mɛdiaːs reːs], lit. “into the middle things”) opens in the midst of action. Often, exposition is bypassed and filled in gradually, either through dialogue, flashbacks or description of past events.
Guest Blogger, David Farland, Coordinating Judge of the Writers of the Future Contest.
David Farland is an award-winning, international bestselling author with over 50 novels in print. He has won the Philip K. Dick Memorial Special Award for “Best Novel in the English Language” for his science fiction novel On My Way to Paradise, the Whitney Award for “Best Novel of the Year” for his historical novel In the Company of Angels, and many more awards for his work. He is best known for his New York Times bestselling fantasy series The Runelords.
Very interesting advice for these first five pages;I tried and followed them ,this is , I think, the way I wrote the first five pages of my story. But of course i Don’t know what’s the result. I just hope that no one of the judges will tell me what I wrote is a mere catastrophe….
I think my head would be reeling trying to put all that in five pages. My current WIP has six protagonists (twelve, if you recognize telepathic-but-non-verbal rocks as characters)–that are NOT being introduced at the same time. And what about my antagonists, don’t you care about them (especially when they’re the type that think they’re the protagonists)? Plus I’m supposed to convey to you that it’s a sort-of-like-the-world-you-know (or at least knew, if you were around in the 1970’s) but-not-quite setting when I really think it’s more important that you start meeting all my characters. And in order to hint at the coming conflict, you really need a prologue of something that happened several decades ago.
If you want me to cram all of that in five pages, what am I supposed to do when the action starts picking up?
Deepest Thanks to David! Your advice was golden. So little said so much! I would never have happened upon all these keys to success on my own even after completing your wonderful workshops. This time I am going to drop a few dimes and do some field research for my next short story and spend two months trying to meet your high expectations.
I feel that the advice is true and that there is no turning of the page without that gripping few moments when a book is handled and then dropped. Sometimes the pages are too gripping but simply told sometimes it is so clever I mean I am nothing to anyone if the words on the page I fear to go out and take an agent because agents know what sells.
The article is so good and important that I printed it. Thank you, Mr. David Farland!