The First Five Pages

When I was in college, I took a Playwriting/Screenwriting course and I absolutely loved it.  Writing plays and film scripts is so much different than writing the traditional novel or research paper.  Not only are the components and general organization different, the tone and voice are also unique.  The one element of a script/stage play that is constant in other works of writing is the beginning.  How do you grab your audience’s attention and have them begging for more?  In a film script, we called this “The First Five Pages” because in a screenplay, the first five pages are roughly the first five minutes of a movie or about one scene.  Think back to your favorite movies, you know, the ones you watch repeatedly and you swear by.  Think of that first scene.  What about it grabbed your attention?  Did you get to the end of the first scene and realize your mouth is hanging open like an idiot?  That’s a great screenwriter right there.

My father and I were watching TV one evening and I was about to leave the room after a movie ended.  The next film had started and I had unknowingly been hooked by the First Five Page rule.  The movie was Swordfish, starring John Travolta, Hugh Jackman, Halle Berry, and Don Cheadle.  The opening scene starts with a hostage situation and Travolta’s character explaining to Cheadle that the hostages were wired with explosive devices that would detonate if any of them left the building.  In a matter of three minutes, we learn that Travolta is the bad guy, Cheadle a well-intentioned chief detective on the case, and Jackman is involved somehow but his role is ambiguous.  After being introduced to three A-list actors and their characters, briefly, we witness a devastating explosion which originates from a poor young girl who was being dragged by bomb squad officers in an attempt to save her life.  After that one scene, I found myself back on the couch watching the entire two hour film with Dad.  This is what I mean by great screenwriting.

The same concept works in writing books.  For a novel it’s probably the first chapter, and for many readers that’s being generous.  The first paragraph and even sentence need to attract readers and convince them to continue.  Whatever it is that you want your reader’s to be addicted to, you must be consistent.  If it is a specific character that needs to draw them in, that character must be captivating throughout the whole narrative.  If it is one particular event, that event must be the center of the story, or at the very least highly relevant to the plot.

I have below, an excerpt from a story I am working on.  I usually do not post things like this since I value the privacy of my writing but these first few sentences are what I have chosen to introduce my main character:

George Clooney was talking to her. He was yammering on about some project he was working on while intermittently congratulating her on her own Oscar nomination. She couldn’t help but wish he hadn’t interrupted her conversation with Jennifer Lawrence which was much more stimulating. At least she had a sense of humor. She was amazed that Clooney did not hold a reputation for being boring. He was quite dull. Almost as dull as the stereotypical Armani suit he was wearing. He was nothing if not predictable.

That was when she saw him, standing just beyond George’s stiff left shoulder. Tall and wearing a dark grey suit, Benedict Cumberbatch smiled that wicked smile she saw so much when she watched him on TV. This is the one person she’d been dying to meet all night. She politely cut short her dialogue with George Clooney, who surprisingly was not the least bit offended. She didn’t feel bad; Sherlock Holmes always trumped George Clooney.

Now there was nothing between them but space. Here he was looking at her, more importantly, he recognized her! He was so close now, within arm’s reach. He extended his arm to shake her hand–

The boisterous and painfully earsplitting sound of the office phone jarred her from her day dream.

“Admissions.” She said into the receiver.

What I was hoping to acheive in this introduction is at least a chuckle from my audience.  Did the day dream at least make you say, “Wow that girl’s got some wild dreams”?  My character has a vivid imagination and her goals might sound outlandish but she also has a determined spirit.  Her fantasy might also be considered backwards by some.  Benedict Cumberbatch?  For most girls, they’d be more interested in George Clooney, but not this character.  By placing this seemingly silly scene at the beginning of my story, I hope to intrigue reader’s enough to figure out who this girl is and why her big dreams are relevant to the story.  In reading this, I want people to be encouraged that they are not alone because deep down I think everyone has little fantasies they wished were true.  In the end my character is an ordinary woman in the workplace but it is the thought of the impossible that drives her.

What are some great first five pages for you?  What movie drew you in like no other?  What book started so stunningly that you could not put it down?  Share it with each other.  Who knows, maybe someone will lead you to your new favorite book or film.

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