by Julie Reich
“Send a one-page query letter, a synopsis, and the first five pages of your manuscript.”
If this statement rings a bell, you’ve encountered the submission guidelines for many agents and editors. A lot is riding on the beginning of your novel. Done well, your first five pages could invite requests for more. But if you don’t hook your readers, they’re unlikely to give your book a chance.
Rob Vlock, author of the Sven Carter series, shared his recipe for grabbing—and keeping—a reader’s attention in a recent Writers’ Loft craft chat, “Nailing Your First Five Pages: Writing an opening that hooks readers fast.” As a mentor in the First Five Pages Writing Workshop, Rob helps fellow writers polish their first five pages, or 1250 words.
What to Avoid
Rob began by describing five openings to avoid.
- Waking up: Unless waking up is integral to the story, leave out the character’s waking moments. What happens next is probably more interesting.
- Dreaming: Your goal is to move the story forward. Dreaming is unlikely to do that.
- Looking in the mirror: You can probably think of more original ways to convey what the character looks like.
- Traveling: A scene in a car (or other vehicle) usually forestalls a more dramatic scene.
- Prologue: Acknowledging that his position is controversial, Rob explained that a prologue can mislead readers about a story—for example, if the prologue is set in the past but the rest of the story is contemporary. He even raised some eyebrows in the room with his assertion that the Star Wars prologues are unnecessary.
What to Do
With the don’ts out of the way, Rob listed strategies for making the first five pages “kick butt.”
- Start as late in the action as you can: Try to avoid “throat clearing.”
- Include an inciting incident: Rob shared that he revised a story so the inciting incident would happen on page 5. He knew the reader would want to keep turning pages after a dramatic moment.
- Hook the reader fast: Rob provided examples that immediately draw you in—including the opening line of E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web: “Where’s Papa going with that axe?”
- Keep it tight: You can reveal a lot with an economy of words. Rob illustrated his point with the first sentence of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis: “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” (In this example, waking up is integral to the story!)
- Establish the book’s 3 C’s and 1 S: According to Rob, these elements are Character (who, and what makes them tick), Conflict, Color (depth, texture, tone, mood), and Stakes.
Rob admitted there are more than five ways to hook or turn off a reader, but the tips he shared at the Loft are tried-and-true methods that have helped him and many of his mentees succeed.
Julie Reich is a Loftings editor and a founding member of the Loft’s Kidlit Book Club. She writes middle-grade novels and picture books, but she hasn’t quit her day job in educational publishing.