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.

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.


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

I learned that even Margaret Atwood has struggled in the ways I've struggled. Most of the course information has been previously said or printed a thousand different ways, but Mrs. Atwood's presence, her secrets, her impish smile, her anecdotes... those are the real lessons here, and they are invaluable.

I can’t thank Margaret Atwood enough for sharing her knowledge and experience and insights. Her wit and honesty remain like the smile of a Cheshire Cat.

This class is not only a dream come true, it's also the most helpful, smart, and fun class I've ever taken.

So many layers to this class. Thank you, Margaret. I feel very blessed to have been able to listen to you.


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.


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.

A Learner

I like what she says in this lesson, it made me really think about what I wrote as my first few pages. If anyone has any critique, that would be fantastic: Vysyndir frowned in concentration. Sweat trickled down his slanting green eyebrows and dripped off of his sharp nose. His pointed ears had turned red. His grey eyes were stormy, the silver flecks glinting like bolts of Lyghtning. He held out one thin, pale hand. He was trembling with effort. Slowly, agonizingly slowly, a drop of water rose out of the beautiful purple flower in front of Vysyndir. The elf concentrated harder, clenching his fist. His nails bit into his skin, but he didn’t relax his fingers. He had worked too hard to stop now. He closed his eyes and pictured the flower in his mind’s eye. Every imperfection was included, and the textured side of each leaf detailed. Vysinder visualized plucking each petal, painstakingly pulling each one until all that was left was the long, green stem of the plant. He imagined the water coursing through the stem, making life possible. He imagined the water, the lifeblood of the plant, pouring out of the stem and pooling on the grass, but not soaking in like it would usually do. Kneeling, Vysyndir opened his eyes. The flower’s petals were still intact, but the plant had shriveled as its life force had been drained away. A bubble of water the size of Vysyndir’s fist floated only a foot away. Vysyndir’s frown deepened. He hated this exercise. His wish was for plants to thrive, to grow and produce shoots of green and purple and every other color imaginable. Death was not something that should happen to any plant, especially not in the middle of Spring, when the plant should be thriving. As an elf, Vysyndir believed that plants were immortal, in the sense that they wouldn’t die unless they were sick or killed. Immortality was not something that should be taken Lyghtly. Especially from something as good, as amazing and unique, as a plant. Of course, thorny plants and plants that made you scratch and scratch until your skin was mutilated and your fingernails were broken and bleeding were a different matter, at least in Vysyndir’s opinion. Those were the worst kinds of plants, with no true purpose but to make others suffer. Plants reminded Vysyndir of elves; long-lived, contrasting, and as many good as there were bad. Vysyndir placed his palm over the wrinkled, grey carcass of the flower and bowed his head solemnly. Then he reached out with one hand and gently caressed the ball of water. It bent under his touch, and a single droplet came away to sit on his index finger. Vysyndir lifted the droplet to examine, making it race around his finger before he flicked it back up into the liquid orb. He wasn’t done yet, little tricks with a droplet weren’t helping him. He needed something bigger, something that showed his control and strength. Something that would impress. Standing again, with one last regretful glance at the once-flower, Vysyndir beckoned to the ball. It came, bobbing up to meet him. At his command it stretched into a long, lithe snake, twirling around his arm and curling into arcane shapes. Vysyndir played with the snake for a moment, grabbing its tail and swinging it back and forth as it attempted to bite him, before returning it to its previous shape. Not now, he scolded himself. Right now you’re trying to impress, not have fun. This is important. He lifted his right hand, the one he used for doing magick, and held it high over his head. The ball rose higher, pressing itself against Vysyndir’s open palm. Vysyndir closed his eyes. The cool water felt good, taking the sweat and heat from his hot hand. He curled his hand into a fist, the water compressing obediently between his fingers, and tainted the water. The liquid turned black, a black Darker than the hide of The Drake, the first dragon, which had been an obsidian black color. The very property of the water seemed to change: instead of hanging in the air in a perfect ball it bulged and bloated, pushing away from Vysyndir’s palm and trying to escape from the grip of his mind. Vysyndir wouldn’t let it, holding it tight with his mental strength and squeezing it hard, forcing the Darke water to obey him. After a few more moments of struggling with the water, Vysyndir allowed it to return to its natural state and let it crash to the ground, splashing his bare feet and soaking into the grass. Lyght was the natural state of all things under the sun and Darke of all under the moon. They tended to balance each other naturally, as most things experienced both night and day and could only be changed from their in-between state by magick. Vysyndir turned to the judges. Three elves, all of whom had graduated from the highest level of the Dirstrine, studied him from their high seats. Each of them had a small slip of paper on which they would write their votes. They were going to vote on whether or not he should continue his magickal education and move on to go live in the college for magick, known by elves as the Dirstrine, the Enlyghtening. Vysyndir wasn’t confident of his chances of getting in. Only the top five magick students of each year got to go to Dirstrine, and, though his tutors always told him that he was talented, he wasn’t sure he believed them. They probably just told him that because his parents paid them double the usual tutoring wages.