Elements to Include in a Novel’s First 5 Pages – Part 1

Zoe’s book, Tailor Your Fiction Manuscript in 30 Days, is a fresh and innovative refocusing of your novel or novella. Through a few simple—and fun—steps, Zoe helps writers take their not-ready-for-publication and/or rejected manuscripts to a spit-polish finish. Writing is hard work, yes, but it doesn’t have to be difficult. —Eva Marie Everson, best-selling and multiple award-winning author, conference director, president of Word Weavers International, Inc.

Learn more at the end of the post.

Don’t lose potential readers. To pull readers into your story, you’ll want to include six elements in the first five pages. In Part 1, we’ll cover two. The full six will help you to

  • hook your reader;
  • place the reader immediately into your story;
  • ground your reader in the who, where, and when; and
  • persuade the reader your story is worth reading.

1 Intriguing Opening

image by geralt

Begin your story with sentences that make your reader ask a question they want to know the answer to.

Example:

Gretchen wiped tears from her cheeks and breathed in fresh air bearing a pleasant gardenia scent. So this was what being outside felt like. She lifted her face to the sunshine warming her head and shoulders. Her seven-month confinement was over.

Questions the reader might ask:

Where has she been that she hasn’t been outside for seven months? Why was she confined?

2 Grounding the Reader

As soon as possible, let your reader know the who, where, and when.

image by Free-Photos

Suppose after the opening hook and into the second page of the story, Gretchen thinks about the things she wants to do in her new freedom. She rises to her feet and takes a few shaky steps, then turns back and sits down. Then a man adjusts his work hat and says, “Let me help you inside.”

Now your reader is asking different questions, but these questions stem from confusion. Where is Gretchen? What is she sitting on? Who is this man? And he wants to help her inside what?

The reader is confused.

image by Engine_Akyurt

The reader’s possible thoughts:

Where: Is she outside a hospital? Why didn’t people take her outdoors during her long stay? That’s unrealistic. People would have taken her outside in a wheelchair. Maybe she was in a coma. That could be the answer. She’s probably sitting in a wheelchair now.

Who: But wouldn’t someone be beside her to help her? Where’s the person who pushed the wheelchair? Is the man who spoke the one who pushed the wheelchair? Or is he a driver of a car that’ll take her away? Or is he the aide who’ll take her back inside the hospital?

When: Well, at least I know it’s daytime. The man adjusts his work hat. If he’s a taxi or ambulance driver, they don’t wear company hats anymore. Neither would a hospital aide. Maybe the story takes place in the past.

I’m confused!

The reader puts the book down.

Do you really want your reader going through all that rumination?

Grounding after the opening lines:

Gretchen is sitting on a porch step of an old Virginia farmhouse, tears spilling from her eyes. Her seven-month ordeal is over.

Two police cars are parked askew out front. The husband and wife who held Gretchen captive sit cuffed in a police cruiser’s backseat. Sirens blare in the distance.

image by GregMcMahan

The sun has become intense. As Gretchen stands and walks toward a bench under a shade tree, a Virginia State patrol car arrives. The trooper climbs out of the vehicle and adjusts his broad-rimmed campaign hat.

The bright sunlight and Gretchen’s weakness make her woozy. The trooper steps forward and says, “Let me help you to the bench.”

You get the idea.

Join me next month to look at:

  • The protagonist’s ordinary world
  • Hinting at the protagonist’s inner and external goals

What in the first five pages makes you put a book down?

Buy Page

I finished reading Tailor Your Fiction Manuscript in 30 Days. I have AND will highly recommend it to anyone who dabbles in fiction. It’s one of the best “how to” books I’ve ever read.

—Marsha Hubler, Director Montrose Christian Writers Conference

 


If you want to increase your chance of hearing yes instead of sorry or not a fit for our list at this time, this book is for you. If you want to develop stronger story plots with characters that are hard to put down, this book is for you. Through McCarthy’s checklists and helpful exercises and corresponding examples, you will learn how to raise the tension, hone your voice, and polish your manuscript. I need this book for my clients and the many conferees I meet at writer’s conferences around the country. Thank you, Zoe. A huge, #thumbsup, for Tailor Your Fiction Manuscript in 30 Days.  

—Diana L. Flegal, literary agent, and freelance editor

Tailor Your Fiction Manuscript is a self-editing encyclopedia! Each chapter sets up the targeted technique, examples show what to look for in your manuscript, then proven actions are provided to take your writing to the next level. Whether you are a seasoned writer or a newbie, you need this book! 

—Sally Shupe, freelance editor, aspiring author

Need to rework your book? Zoe M. McCarthy’s step-by-step reference guide leads you through the process, helping you fight feeling overwhelmed and wrangle your manuscript into publishable shape in 30 days. Tailor Your Manuscript delivers a clear and comprehensive action plan.

—Elizabeth Spann Craig, Twitteriffic owner, bestselling cozy mystery author of the “Myrtle Clover Mysteries,” the “Southern Quilting Mysteries,” and the “Memphis Barbeque Mysteries,” http://elizabethspanncraig.com/blog/  

Zoe has developed a guiding resource for beginning writers. Her method is designed for brainstorming, shaping, and revising the early draft of a manuscript. General and specific tips are offered for applying rules of writing to enhance one’s story for a workable second draft. By exploring the plot line of Love Comes Softly, writers may examine their own work for stronger plot and characterization. Valuable tools are offered that enable the writer to develop a workable draft in only 30 days!

—Yvonne Lehman, award-winning, best-selling author of 48 novels

Tailor Your Fiction Manuscript in 30 Days is chock-full of practical techniques. Numerous examples clarify problem areas and provide workable solutions. The action steps and blah busters McCarthy suggests will help you improve every sentence, every paragraph of your novel. If you follow her advice and implement her strategies, a publisher will be much more likely to issue you a contract.

—Denise K. Loock, freelance editor, lightningeditingservices.com

A concise, detailed, step by step resource for all writers. 

— Jamie West, editor coordinator, Pelican Book Group

Zoe’s writing blog has always intrigued me. As a high school English teacher, I can attest that her tips on good grammar and her hints for excellent sentence and paragraph structure are spot on. But as an author, I also appreciate her ever-present advice that excellent skills are not enough: you must tell a good story, too. This book clearly shows how to do it all.

—Tanya Hanson, “Writing the Trails to Tenderness,” author of Christmas Lights, Outlaw Heart, Hearts Crossing Ranch anthology, and coming in 2019, Tainted Lady, Heart of Hope, and Angel Heart. www.tanyahanson.com

McCarthy crafted an amazing self-help book that will strengthen any writer, whether new or seasoned, with guidance and self-evaluation tools.

–Erin Unger, author of Practicing Murder, releasing in 2019

Holding Back Story Info Doesn’t Always Create Suspense

Zoe’s book, Tailor Your Fiction Manuscript in 30 Days, is a fresh and innovative refocusing of your novel or novella. Through a few simple—and fun—steps, Zoe helps writers take their not-ready-for-publication and/or rejected manuscripts to a spit-polish finish. Writing is hard work, yes, but it doesn’t have to be difficult. —Eva Marie Everson, best-selling and multiple award-winning author, conference director, president of Word Weavers International, Inc.

 See the end of this post for more information.

 

Writers of all genres want—and should—create suspense in their scenes. They want to create delicious questions in the reader’s mind that the reader can’t wait to learn the answers.

Unfortunately, writers often create confusion instead of suspense. I’ve observed this especially in new writers.

Case of Confusion

The opening paragraph:

On her first day of classes, Cassie joined other students outside the classroom. Several smiled at her and welcomed her. While the students carried on lively conversations, Cassie narrowed her eyes and stared at them. She gave mental huffs when students turned away from her. The other students glanced her way less and less during their conversations.

Cassie dodged students in the corridor on her way to her next class. No one understood her. Why did Dad have to move the family so often. Didn’t he know blending in was hard for her? If only he’d change jobs.

A redhead approached her outside her English class. “You’re in my biology class. How do you like Sampson High?”

“It’s okay for a deaf person.”

The writer decided to hold off revealing Cassie is deaf. She wanted to make the reader wonder why Cassie continually narrows her eyes, stares at other students, and becomes upset when people turn away from her. What happens, though, is the reader is thrown out of the story’s flow and tries to figure out why Cassie acts so weird—is unlikeable.

The writer could have given better clues, such as Cassie concentrates on students’ lips, but the writer doesn’t want the reader to guess Cassie is deaf. The writer wants to surprise the reader.

The writer has created confusion when it’s the writer’s job to ground the reader with the information the reader needs to get into the story as smoothly as possible.

So, What Is Suspense?

 

Trent receives a phone call. “Meet me behind the cafeteria. I’ve got somethin’ for you. You ain’t gonna like it, but if you’re gonna survive the school year, you’re gonna need it.”

This makes the reader ask the question, “What does the caller have for Trent that’s not good but he’ll need to survive? I want to know.”

What other questionable techniques confuse readers?

Buy Link

“I finished reading Tailor Your Fiction Manuscript in 30 Days. I have AND will highly recommend it to anyone who dabbles in fiction. It’s one of the best “how to” books I’ve ever read.” Marsha Hubler, Director Montrose Christian Writers Conference

If you want to increase your chance of hearing yes instead of sorry or not a fit for our list at this time, this book is for you. If you want to develop stronger story plots with characters that are hard to put down, this book is for you. Through McCarthy’s checklists and helpful exercises and corresponding examples, you will learn how to raise the tension, hone your voice, and polish your manuscript. I need this book for my clients and the many conferees I meet at writer’s conferences around the country. Thank you, Zoe. A huge, #thumbsup, for Tailor Your Fiction Manuscript in 30 Days.  —Diana L. Flegal, literary agent, and freelance editor

Tailor Your Fiction Manuscript is a self-editing encyclopedia! Each chapter sets up the targeted technique, examples show what to look for in your manuscript, then proven actions are provided to take your writing to the next level. Whether you are a seasoned writer or a newbie, you need this book! —Sally Shupe, freelance editor, aspiring author Paragraph

McCarthy crafted an amazing self-help book that will strengthen any writer, whether new or seasoned, with guidance and self-evaluation tools. —Erin Unger, author of Practicing Murder, releasing in 2019

Need to rework your book? Zoe M. McCarthy’s step-by-step reference guide leads you through the process, helping you fight feeling overwhelmed and wrangle your manuscript and into publishable shape in 30 days. Tailor Your Manuscript delivers a clear and comprehensive action plan. —Elizabeth Spann Craig, Twitteriffic owner, bestselling author of the Myrtle Clover Mysteries, the Southern Quilting Mysteries, and the Memphis Barbeque Mysteries http://elizabethspanncraig.com/blog/

 

How to Ground Your Reader at the Start of Each Scene


“The difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense.”
— Tom Clancy

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We’ve looked at the importance of the first lines of chapter one, scene one. But how about all the other scenes?

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  • Your scene openings must not leave your readers feeling like they’ve just snapped out of a coma.
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file000782821910.jpgThe first lines of a scene must let the reader know the “who,” “where,” “when,” and “mood” of the scene so the reader is ready for new action and events.

Let’s look at two scene lead-ins that do well in grounding the reader, and see why that is.

EXCERPT 1: The Shadow of Your Smile by Susan May Warren (Chapter 3/Scene 1)

file0001593792043.jpgShe hurt everywhere – her arms, her legs – her entire body ached, right to her bones. And her head. As if a vise gripped it, pain screwed through her, eliciting a moan from places deep inside.

“I’m right here, Noelle.

The voice brought her forward, from the webbed blackness, from the place where pain held her prisoner. …

Where’s the grounding? This opening shows me a female is just realizing her pain from an event. In the dialog, Warren quickly lets us know it’s Noelle. Then in the next sentence, we learn she’s been unconscious.

I like this because instead of Warren telling us right up front that Noelle realizes she’s been unconscious, she lets us experience the confusion with Noelle. In this case, the reader experiencing uncertainty about the “where” works.

But Warren soon removes the confusion. In the next paragraph, she uses smells and sights to let us know Noelle is in a hospital. Now we’re ready to roll.

EXCERPT 2: The Narrow Path by Gail Sattler (Chapter 4/Scene 2)

file9311242742595.jpgAch, you should not be here in my kitchen getting your own tea. You are a guest.” Susan extended one arm in the direction of the doorway. “You should be showing your pictures and good ideas to the men. I will bring you more tea when it is ready. Go into the living room.”

“Thanks,” Miranda said. Nervously, she ran her hand down her slim skirt. …

Where’s the grounding? From the Ach, I immediately know the speaker is one of the Mennonite characters. Then I know we’re in the kitchen and the speaker is Susan. I know some tension exists. And from information in prior scenes, I’d know the other person’s identity by what Susan says the person should be doing and that she’s a guest. But in case I don’t know, Sattler tells me it’s Miranda in the very next paragraph.

I like this because Sattler used dialog effectively to ground me. And interesting dialog, at that. The foreign expression hints at the speaker’s “who.” Susan’s accusation gets the “where” established. Her advice shows the other person’s identity.

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  • Look for interesting techniques to ground readers at the start of a scene.
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What advice and cautions do you have on grounding the reader in a scene?