Arts & Entertainment, Writing

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

Margaret Atwood

Lesson time 08:42 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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Topics include: The First Page Is a Gateway • Writing the Beginning of The Handmaid’s Tale


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...

About the Instructor

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.

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Margaret Atwood

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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