How to Pack a Punch in Your First Five Pages with Natasha Lester

In my second post in the lead up to Pitch Wars 2017, I've called on the fabulous Natasha Lester to share some of her best advice on how to make your first five pages stand out. After all, the first pages of a book are so important. These pages not only introduce the main character/s and any conflict, but they also set the scene for what's ahead. The opening of your story needs to make readers feel compelled to keep turning pages. So, how are some of the ways writers can ensure they do this?

Here's what Natasha had to say:

I always say to people that the first five pages of a book are a bit like a sales document. That might sound unromantic, but most Australian publishers only ask for your first three chapters when you submit to them. On the basis of those three chapters, they’ll decide whether or not to ask for your entire manuscript. Which means your first three chapters need to leave them wanting more, and your first five pages are the keys to creating this sense of anticipation. So how do we do that?

Voice

Voice is what lures the reader so completely into a story that the page disappears. It makes the reader feel as if they are inhabiting the world of the story. So your voice needs to be strong, distinctive, alluring and fresh. The trouble is, voice is hard to force or to teach. Often, it’s either there or it’s not.

One thing that helps is to be aware of what voice is. If you don’t understand what voice is and how it works, then you might not recognise when your story is voiceless. Often, writing lots of short scenes first before plunging into a story is a good way to find its voice. Reading books that have distinctive voices helps too. Make sure the sound of your story - i.e. its compelling voice - is there right from the very first page.

Forward Moving Action

Sometimes, in our desire to make sure the reader understands everything about our characters, we overload the first chapter with backstory. Try to limit the amount of backstory in the first five pages - I would even go so far as to say try writing the first five pages without any backstory at all; see if that improves the pace.

Forward moving action is the exact opposite of backstory. It is action, for a start, rather than exposition. It moves the story onwards, setting up a trajectory that the reader wants to follow. That’s what your first five pages should be all about.

Character

Make sure you introduce the main character and at least one other important character - perhaps your antagonist, your love interest, or a significant family member or friend. The reader needs to not only understand who the important characters are, they also need to understand which are the important relationships to cheer for and which ones to fear.

Make sure that your main character is on the page, talking and doing, rather than thinking and contemplating. It’s best to avoid very passive activities like staring out windows or into mirrors or at photographs as this is cliched and often just a way to sneak in some backstory. It also doesn’t allow the character to develop as they aren’t active.

It’s not necessary to be overly descriptive about your character in the first five pages; if we hear them speak and see them act then we will draw our own conclusions about your character’s personality and temperament.

Get the Reader on Side

Perhaps the most important job of the first five pages is to begin the process of getting the reader on the side of the main character, to be sure that we are rooting for him or her to succeed. This will mean giving the reader a sense of some sort of latent need/want/desire/dissatisfaction in your character’s life. A void, if you like, that the reader would like to see filled. You don’t need to be overt about stating this void; a hint will suffice at this stage.

Things to Avoid

The main thing to avoid is a lack of focus. Too many characters, too many locations, head-hopping with your point of view, setting up too many questions - all of these will tend to confuse the reader, rather than engage them with your story.

It’s impossible to say just how many characters is the ideal number but really think about the purpose of those first five pages: to lure the reader in. Narrow your focus down to the characters and actions that will do just that, write it with a distinctive and captivating voice and your first five pages will be certain to sell your book.

For more writing tips from Natasha, visit www.natashalester.com.au

Natasha Lester’s fourth book, Her Mother’s Secret, was published by Hachette Australia in 2017. She is also the author of the bestselling historical novel, A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald, which was published in 2016.

Previously, she’s written literary fiction as well, including the award-winning What is Left Over After (2010) and If I Should Lose You (2012). The Age newspaper has described her as “a remarkable Australian talent.”

She has been the recipient of grants by the Australia Council, and a writing residency from Varuna, The Writers House. Her work has also appeared in The Review of Australian Fiction and Overland, and the anthologies Australian Love Stories, The Kid on the Karaoke Stage and Purple Prose. In her spare time, she loves to teach writing, she’s a sought after public speaker and she can be also often be found drinking tea, buying shoes, doing headstands at yoga, or playing dress-ups with her 3 children.