After The First Five Pages

Noah Lukeman’s The First Five Pages alerted novelists to the need to create an intriguing opening. But the truth is, writers need to keep readers interested beyond that first scene. After the initial intrigue, what will keep them turning pages?

A number of pitfalls can work against this goal: glumps of backstory, over-the-top “gore, profanity or explicit sex,” and the “flash forward,” usually formatted in a prologue (quotes from Hallie Ephron, The Writer, October 2008).

“Gore, profanity or explicit sex” seem self-explanatory. These things pull readers out of the story.

“Glumps” or Long paragraphs of backstory or even of description work against the story because there is little tension, the element agent Donald Maass (Writing the Breakout Novel) says is necessary on every page.

Newer writers often believe it is vital for readers to understand what came before, what the character or story world is all about, or the story won’t make sense.

The problem is, if readers are bored with these “necessities,” they won’t stick around. Instead, writers need to trust their readers and unfold the backstory and descriptions as the story takes place.

Regarding the flash forward, Ephron says it is a device writers are tempted to use in order to begin with an exciting scene when the actual beginning seems to lack pizazz. An exciting flash forward, however, will simply serve as a sharp contrast to the lackluster events that put the story in motion–not a proven way of keeping readers turning pages.

Beyond avoiding these pitfalls, what should writers be sure to include after the first five pages if we are to keep readers engaged?

First we must create characters readers care about. Quirky characters may be interesting, but they may also be hard to connect with. On the other hand, bland characters that are floating through the life of their story aren’t interesting. The writer must find the balance.

In my reading, I’ve found stories with truly wonderful characters. They are fun–even funny–and realistic, with age spots and crows feet as well as knight-in-shining-armor charisma and undeniable moral fiber.

And yet, at times, something has been missing, something so integral that I can easily close the book and not finish reading because I just don’t care.

Yikes! 😮 What would cause such a thing?

In a nutshell, objectives. Actually, the lack thereof. In order for me to cheer for a character, which means I’ve arrived at the caring level, I have to see the character striving to accomplish something. The story can’t stall on bad things happening to a good character, over and over again. Instead, the character must take on a central problem and work to win out.

Somehow, a character striving, especially against great odds, resonates. It is in the effort to overcome that a character’s mettle shines.

That being said, I believe there is still more. In order for a reader to truly care, there needs to be the legitimate possibility of failure. Frodo was such a hero, such a tragic hero, in part because his ability to pull off a victory was in doubt until the last sentence of the climax. For much of the last book of The Lord of the Rings, Frodo’s spirit was willing, but his flesh was weak. Then his spirit gave out.

Along the way, he’d experienced a good number of successes, so how did Tolkien make readers feel as if Frodo might not make it in the end? I think the main way was by not protecting his characters from hurt. The four hobbits were captured, Frodo was wounded, Gandolf was killed, Peregrin looked into the crystal and fell gravely ill. King Theoden came under Worm Tongue’s spell, Boromir succumbed to his desire for the ring and died. At every turn, the end seemed in doubt and victories weren’t had without paying a price.

In summary, readers need to know what the character is trying to achieve so they can cheer for him. And winning can’t come easily or quickly. There needs to be the credible possibility that winning won’t be the kind of winning the reader was hoping for. With an engaging character trying to achieve the near impossible in the face of the real potential for failure, readers are bound to be scrambling for the book during every free moment.

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7 Comments

Filed under Backstory, Characters, Story

7 responses to “After The First Five Pages

  1. Great post. This is so true, “With an engaging character trying to achieve the near impossible in the face of the real potential for failure, readers are bound to be scrambling for the book during every free moment.”

    I’d never thought of that before, but you’re right. The task has to be so hard that we believe the character could fail.

  2. Karin Neary

    What a timely post. The two take away points for me: “objectives” and “legitimate possibility of failure”. That brought such clarity to the story I’m revising. Using that as a sprinboard, I wrote out my MC’s objectives, obstacles, what the legitimate failures would look like, and his worst nightmare. I suddenly had such insight into my MC that the story is FINALLY coming together.

    Thank you for your insights!

  3. Excellent post! I like how it’s not just likable characters that you want to follow, but the nagging fear in the back if your head that they might fail, or be found out, or even die. Harry Potter did this, Hunger Games, and of course, one of my favorite characters that you mentioned: Frodo. I also think the best endings are bittersweet. There is victory and hope for the future, but at a price.

  4. Thanks, Sally. Yes, I think the idea that the character is just as likely to fail as to succeed ups the stakes, keeps the suspense high, and makes the ending all the more satisfying. It’s a key ingredient, I think, to great stories.

    Becky

  5. Karin, I’m so happy this post sparked your thinking. Great that the story is coming together. I love those kinds of break-throughs.

    You might be interested to know that this is actually a re-write of two posts that appeared four years ago at my personal blog, A Christian Worldview of Fiction. Since I don’t believe in coincidences, I see the hand of God in this. 😀

    Becky

  6. Good point about the bittersweet aspect of endings, Morgan. For some reason, when the protagonist gets exactly what he wanted or even better, at little or no cost, it doesn’t feel earned and isn’t as satisfying as if he had to suffer some kind of loss. Tricky thing, endings.

    Becky

  7. Karin Neary

    I see His hand too…very cool! 🙂

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