Friday, October 6, 2017

Four Essential Elements for Your First Five Pages

Reposted from Adventures in YA Publishing
When you discuss in-progress manuscripts, you see passion for cool characters, twisty plots, even unique settings, sparkle in authors’ eyes. Yet, those self-same writers often struggle to translate their energy onto the opening pages of their novels so that readers become equally excited. Here are two common reasons WHY:

  • The author is so steeped in the story that he or she loses touch with the reader’s viewpoint. (E.g., “Isn’t it obvious to the reader that the MC is a sixteen-year-old blind girl?” NOT unless you wrote it down!)
  • The author is “saving” the BIG surprise for a later page. Truth: That classic “inverted check” plot arc--rising and falling action bookending a climax--is not license to make ANY PAGE static, unnecessary or merely set-up. For today’s media-savvy YA readers, weak or slow openings can be the kiss of death.
So, how does one render an agent, editor and reader unable to resist turning those first pages? By making sure to include these 4 ESSENTIAL ELEMENTS of a strong opening:

  1. ANCHOR readers in time and place. Readers want to know if they are in the past or present, in a world that is realistic or fantastic. You can forge this anchor with a mere fifteen or twenty words. What words? Those which are world-specific, such as “District 12” and “Peacekeepers” in Suzanne Collins’s first chapter of The Hunger Games. Or words which give readers sensory details about landscape and climate, and a sense of the main character’s physical location within this world.
    EXAMPLE: I hate First Friday. It makes the village crowded and now, in the heat of high summer, that’s the last thing anyone wants. From my place in the shade it isn’t so bad, but the stink of bodies…is enough to make milk curdle. 
    --- THE RED QUEEN by Victoria Aveyard
  2. REVEAL key elements of your main character’s identity. Is s/he good or bad? Happy or sad? Is she a television model? A ghost hunter? A clone? Use words that refer to a character’s participation in a job or club, his or her unusual physical attributes or talents. Reference a recent or upcoming key life event. Give readers enough information so that they feel empathy, compassion, concern, or another strong emotion inspiring them to continue journeying with your character.
    EXAMPLE: I taped the commercial back in April, before anything had happened, and promptly forgot about it. A few weeks ago, it had started running, and suddenly, I was everywhere…I stare at myself on the screen as I was five months earlier, looking for any difference, some visible proof of what had happened to me…The camera moved in, closer and closer, until all you could see was my face, the rest dropping away. This had been before that night, before everything had happened with Sophie, before this long, lonely summer of secrets and silence 
    .--- JUST LISTEN by Sarah Dessen
  3. ESTABLISH your genre. Often, I read first pages which seem contemporary while the synopsis reveals a story that is going to turn dystopian or paranormal. While twists are great, you should let readers know whether they are about to embark on a romance or a horror story. Otherwise, they may ultimately feel misled or simply bored by a story in a genre they don’t love. Again, authors: Remember your readers’ viewpoints.
    EXAMPLE: The grease-slicked hair is a dead giveaway – no pun intended….I know what to look for, because I’ve seen just about every variety of spook and spectre you can imagine…He’s perfectly pleasant…but when we get to that bridge, he’ll be as angry and ugly as anyone you’ve ever seen. It’s reported that his ghost, dubbed unoriginally as the County 12 Hitchhiker, has killed at least a dozen people…
    --- ANNA DRESSED IN BLOOD by Kendare Blake
  4. ADD an element of tension. Once you have connected readers with your MC, genre and world, make them feel that tingle of “OH! WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?” motivation to turn the page. Introducing a subplot, motif or conflict that will ultimately be part of the larger story is an excellent choice here.
    EXAMPLE: “This is the last,” proclaimed Antoinette from her bed. “I will have no more mice babies. They are such the disappointment. They are hard on my beauty. They ruin, for me, my looks. This is the last one. No more.”

    “The last one,” said the father. “And he’ll be dead soon. He can’t live. Not with his eyes open like that.”

    But, reader, he did live.

    This is his story.
    --- THE TALE OF DESPEREAUX by Kate DiCamillo

The more you read strong examples of authors who successfully incorporate these essential four elements into their opening chapters, the more you will discover how to do this in your own work.

Happy writing!


About the Author

Stasia Ward Kehoe is the author of AUDITION and THE SOUND OF LETTING GO from Viking (Penguin Random House).

She can be found online at or in-person writing in spurts between carpooling, laundry, and cooking for four hungry sons.

She lives in a horsey suburb of Seattle, WA, but is allergic to horses (See? Tension!)

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