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 skilful 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 likeable 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.


For a temporary time, my online classes are open for those who would like to take them in January. You can view them or register here.

I still have room for more students in my live workshop taking place in Phoenix, in February. You can learn about that here.

With it being the Holiday season, you might be interested in picking up my short story, “My Favorite Christmas.” At age 16, Dale Fawkes is about to have his favorite Christmas—one that features a man who claims to be an uncle. But when the truth comes out, it is both stranger and more wondrous than Dale could ever imagine. (For mature audiences only.)

I have a short story in Unfettered II, an anthology that is aiming to raise money to help reduce authors’ medical debts and fund cancer research. Unfettered placed in the Top 5 Books of December on Omnivoracious.

4 thoughts on “Your First Five Pages

  1. Morgan Smith

    Hi Dave,

    I have a question for you regarding this particular subject. How do you appropriately balance hooking the reader immediately, as described in various ways above, and maintaining important details to be used later in a crescendo moment? Put alternatively, how do I write a great five to ten page section, without revealing too many of the cards that I want to display later?

    Thank you so much for posting these to help myself and others out in our fledgling steps.

  2. David Farland Post author

    That’s always a balancing trick. Mike Resnick, who has won more Nebula awards than anyone alive for his short fiction, says that he spends 80-90 percent of his time on a short story crafting the first two pages. Really, it’s that hard! So it’s a matter of art and timing and sweating a little blood.

  3. Morgan Smith

    Oh wow! That’s some intense work. Is it best to try and craft those first two pages to perfection first? Or to get through your story then go back and make sure the first ones accurately depict the grip and feeling you were trying to get across? Or perhaps a tertiary method I’m not thinking of.

    1. David Farland Post author

      Good question. I don’t think that there is any one way to do it. Mike says that he puts all of the effort on those first two pages up front, but then goes back and rewrites them.


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