Columns > Published on October 7th, 2015

Polishing the All-Important First Fives

It’s no surprise that beginnings are hard. When you finally find your manuscript in the hands of an editor or agent, you want to make the best first impression you possibly can—and fast. A lot of times that means within the first five pages, but focusing on the first five sentences, or even words, of your manuscript can help you get over that hump and make the reader want to move further.

Today we are going to talk about those all-important first fives. What makes a compelling beginning? What grabs a reader and makes them want to read on? What should you avoid? There’s been much said on this topic, and today I’ll be sharing the tips and tricks that I found to be most helpful.

First Five Words:

Now, we’re going to say the first five words, but in reality we’re talking about your opening sentence. Your first sentence may or may not be exactly five words long, but the point is that those opening sentences need to grab your reader right away. Your opening line is your opportunity to make a riveting first impression.

Let’s think for a moment about some well-known dynamic first lines in literature.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. –Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. –Vladimir Nabakov, Lolita

"You better not never tell nobody but God." –Alice Walker, The Color Purple

When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. –Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games

What do these first lines all have in common? First, they establish voice. Second, they present a hook that draws a reader in.  No words are wasted in these openings. There’s an economy of language that leaves nothing but the most important of glimpses at the narrator. Most importantly, there’s no telling—it’s all showing.

Readers want to know who is telling the story, and why they should care about them, and getting that established in the opening of your novel is important.

When crafting and editing the first line of your story, it’s important to begin with only the most important of facts. Start in the action, or with an unforgettable look at your narrator’s voice. Leave the flowery description and lengthy backstory to be revealed later on, and always start with your hook.

First Five Sentences:

Okay, so you’ve grabbed the reader with an unforgettable first line, so now you’re on to that first paragraph, including the first five sentences of your story. These first sentences are going to be important in setting up your reader’s expectations and developing a relationship with that reader.

A great tip that has always stuck with me comes from young adult author Tom Leveen. He advises writers to think of these first five lines in terms of a moment that changed your main character’s life forever. You want to start in a moment when things will never be the same.

Take this example from Tom’s own young adult novel, Party:

I’m the girl nobody knows until she commits suicide. Then suddenly everyone had a class with her.

You know the one I mean.

You don’t pick on her, because you don’t know she’s there, not really. She sits behind you in chemistry, or across the room in Spanish.

Boom. Dynamite first line leading into observations about a time when this girl’s life will never be the same. She’s thinking about how easy it is to be forgotten, and how she feels invisible amongst her peers. When a character starts down this line of thinking, the reader knows something is about to change, and that nothing will ever be the same.

Here’s something to think about. Some people say that you should never start a novel with backstory, but I think there are plenty of wonderful books that begin by showing a character in this all-important moment of change. (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larsson is an excellent example). The important thing here is to show the reader why this day is different, and if that moment is backstory, then so be it. There are no hard and fast rules in writing, and you should feel free to explore your story in the way you want to tell it.

First Five Pages:

Now that you’ve established a hook in your first line and drawn in your reader with a day that everything changes for your main character, it’s time to support that great opening with an unforgettable first five pages. So much has been said and written about writing the first five pages, but there are some key points that I have found to be really helpful in polishing a rough draft. 

You want to be sure to inform your reader of when and where the action in your story will be taking place. Is this book set in a contemporary time period? In the distant past or future? What is the location or setting like? You want to clue your readers in early on and set the stage for what to expect as they read. You don’t want to leave them wondering too much, and the first five pages is the perfect place to set up this type of expectation.

Another thing to think about in these first five pages is setting the voice and tone of your story. You’ve already done a little of that in your opening five words and sentences, but now is the time to solidify that non-verbal agreement with your reader. Your opening pages should ascertain why your reader wants to embark on a journey with your main character(s). Readers want to know who is telling the story, and why they should care about them, and getting that established in the opening of your novel is important.

And finally, you want to be sure that all of this exploration is absolutely flawless in terms of editing and logic. It’s true when they say you only have one chance to make a first impression, and when trying to engage your reader, you don’t want them to be taken out of the story with spelling or copyediting mistakes. Go through your first five pages with a fine-toothed comb and edit, rewrite and tighten every phrase and sentence. You want to present only your most concise, polished prose in your first impression.

First impressions and beginnings are important, especially when you’re trying to get noticed amongst the piles of slush. I hope some of these ideas and tips resonate with you. Keep them in mind as you edit and you’ll be well on your way to an unforgettable beginning.

About the author

Riki has a long-standing love affair with all things books and writing. She indulged her love for all things literary with a degree in English Literature from Arizona State University and is currently studying at the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing. Although she is well past her own teen years, Riki’s reading passion lies with Young Adult literature where she devours books that handle the “firsts” in life. When not reading and writing she can be found yelling at the television while watching sports.

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