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Arts & Entertainment

The Door to Your Book: The Importance of the First Five Pages

Margaret Atwood

Lesson time 08:43 min

From Melville to Dickens, Margaret shares some of her favorite opening lines and underscores the value of making your first five pages utterly compelling.

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Margaret Atwood
Teaches Creative Writing
Learn how the author of The Handmaid’s Tale crafts vivid prose and hooks readers with her timeless approach to storytelling.
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The single, shortest, best opening sentence of a novel in my opinion is "Moby Dick." And those three words are "call me Ishmael." So what's packed into those three words? His name isn't Ishmael. Why does he want you to call him that? You have to think about then who Ishmael is, who this character is representing himself as. Ishmael is an outcast. But he is an outcast who is favored by angels. Okay, so that's two things about Ishmael. Call me Ishmael. Who's he speaking to? He's speaking to the reader. He's speaking in the present tense so that we know whoever else goes down with the ship, it's not going to be him. He will survive the story, which he does. He's the only person who survives the story. We don't know that yet because we haven't read the book. But it's packed into those first three words. Another famous one is "A Tale of Two Cities." It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. You can't do better than that about any time. We can say that about our time as well. [MUSIC PLAYING] Let us do a thought experiment. You are a new writer, and you've actually finished your book. You finished it. You've edited it. You have found an agent. The agent has placed it with a publisher, and the publisher has published your book. So close your eyes and imagine the cover. That's the cover of your book. It has the killer title that you have given it. And you walk into a bookstore. This is real life. It's different from somebody telling you that you've got talent. Your book is actually in a store. It's right there. And now you're going to switch roles, and you're going to be a bookstore customer. You see this striking new book by somebody you've never heard of with an interesting title. And maybe there will be a little bookstore recommendation by one of the employees. I loved this, says Nancy. So you pick it up. What's the first thing you do? Well, if you're like everybody else, you turn to the inside front flap. And there will be an account of the book. So you read this enticing inside front flap, and then you turn to the first page. And if you cannot get that reader through the first page, they will never read the brilliant insights into life that are on page 75. So what you want on the first page is something that is going to beckon the reader in. The first page is a gateway. It's a door. It's a door into the book. There's a sort of pre-door, which is the cover, and then the secondary pre-door, which is the title page. But the real door is the first page of the book. And that's why the first page-- in fact, the first five pages-- have to be a good entryway into the book. Tell me more. This looks like a really interesting setup. Tell me more, but don't tell me too much more. And don't overload me with information in those first five page pages. Lead me through the doorway. And leave enough hooks there so that I will want to read on. So finding that moment, finding those first five pages-- it can...


The art of powerful storytelling

Called the “Prophet of Dystopia,” Margaret Atwood is one of the most influential literary voices of our generation. In her first-ever online writing class, the author of The Handmaid’s Tale teaches how she crafts compelling stories, from historical to speculative fiction, that remain timeless and relevant. Explore Margaret’s creative process for developing ideas into novels with strong structures and nuanced characters.



Reviews

4.7
Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

Margaret is so captivating I could not, and would not, stop watching. Only wishing it was longer. Need more Atwood.

Lots of practical examples and details in this class that are actually helpful. Always held my interest, even when a particular lesson didn't apply to what I'm doing. Magnificent class!

I was captivated with every word Margaret shared so generously. It must have taken her a great deal of time to synthesize these classes and there were many insights particularly regarding her research for Alias Grace that I found very helpful. Many thanks

There are so many ways of looking at a novel. Margaret gave me a new perspective on the questions you should be asking, the research you should be doing to answer those questions and pulling inspiration from the past. Your own and the world's.


Comments

Dale U.

Brilliant lesson. I also do my first draft with pen and paper and my handwriting is far from the best. I'll now have to go over my manuscript to see if I can find my doorway. Perhaps a prologue is necessary.

Post P.

I read the back cover first, and then maybe the first page if the synopsis is interesting enough!

Suzanne B.

Thank you, Alison. I do like my revised opening better. But your comment about Dickens is encouraging. I think dialogue is one of my strengths, and I noticed that I'd used it at the beginning of a different chapter. I thought it was fine. When the reader is informed as to who is who, then I agree, dialogue is a good way to include the reader and bring her with you as the plot moves forward.

Andrea P.

So, there's a lot of pressure for the first page! But it is true. Whenever I go to a bookstore, the cover might catch my eye, but if the first paragraph doesn't intrigue me, I put it down. I think that writing on paper has advantages that are lost when writing on a computer and vice versa. A lot of my thoughts are already on paper, I just need to put them together.

Suzanne B.

I rewrote the beginning and am much happier with it. I made the mistake of starting off with dialogue and was advised of that error. I also managed to incorporate a great deal of backstory into the beginning so that now, I don't have to give as much information as I did in the first drafts. You just have to accept the premise that this girl is able to transition into a raven . . . what's the big deal?

John D.

Yet another area where I struggle - where to start? What is the best beginning? Is this the correct and most catching sentence? This was a lovely lesson and a real privilege to see Margaret Atwood's original handwritten papers.

Sam

The end gave me a little spark of delightful hope when she began joking abut her handwriting. I always got into trouble at school and with family because mine was so terrible, but I could always read it so I didn't see a problem. But now I don't think I'll be so worried about it. Also, this lesson was very helpful and has gotten me thinking about how I would summarize my current novel and how I might rearrange the beginning

Suzanne B.

Another wonderful aspect of this Master Class process; when I share with the community, I see what I've written with a different lens-more critical. It's similar to checking a drawing or painting with a mirror--removed just enough to see your work more accurately. For that reason, I would like to share my edited first lines. #“I don’t want to frighten you,” a voice said. “It’s me, Grandpa Corbin.” The voice was familiar but the form was not. Just outside my window, on the sill, perched a large black raven. I did not see Grandpa, just the bird’s silhouette. The vision added to my torment. I grabbed a towel from my desk and attempted to shoo the bird away, but the black beast wouldn’t budge.

Suzanne B.

This is the new first page (first lines) of my novel, written after Chapter 14. Would love some feedback. #“I don’t want to frighten you,” a voice said. “It’s me, Grandpa Corbin.” The voice was familiar but the form was not. Just outside my window, on the sill, perched a large black raven. I did not see Grandpa, just the dark silhouette of a large bird, a vision that added to my torment. I grabbed a towel and attempted to shoo the bird away, but the black beast wouldn’t budge.

Suzanne B.

I have a first draft of my YA novel and have been struggling with it since the last chapter where I had to write a scene from 3 pov's. I chose the "battle" scene. I realized after looking hard at that scene, I was leaving my protag in the dust. It's the second time my secondary characters have taken over. I feel strongly about this protag and I want to fulfill her quest. (Woke up at 4:30AM) After this chapter 14, I thought it through, wrote (by hand) in my MasterClass journal all my misgivings and intentions for Annica (my protag). The story had to be true to her needs, her quest, meet goals that served her arc. Annica found her way, her quest, and her resolve. Between rewriting the scenes and attempting first lines/pages, I found the story's/Annica's true beginning and I grasp where she needs to be at the end. I'm totally up to improvising as we go, but I'm confident we're on the right path. "The beginning of writing is not the beginning of a novel." No truer words were ever spoken. I had to write the whole thing (257 pages) and rewrite those pages. These exercises have helped me understand how to cope with the challenges of a work the size of a novel. P.S. I also finished The Blind Assassin and I loved it. I think and write from a complex set of circumstances, so Blind Assassin fit right in with my literary preferences.