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How to Nail Your Novel’s First 500 Pages

Warning: Hacks for Hacks tips may have harmful side effects on your writing career, and should not be used by minors, adults, writers, poets, scribes, scriveners, journalists, or anybody.

You only get one shot to hook an editor or an agent. If you’re going to get them to like your novel, you’ve got to do it in the first 500 pages. It may sound harsh. It may seem unfair. But if you want to make it as a writer, you’ve got to deal with the fact that most publishing professionals will give you maybe 500 pages—or less!—to hook them. If they’re not invested in the characters, if they’re not completely immersed in the plot, if they’re not moved to tears by your imagery within your novel’s first six dozen chapters or so, it’s probably never going to happen. Don’t despair, though! In this month’s column, I’m going to cover all the elements you need to include to make your first 500 pages absolutely un-put-down-able.

Opening Action

The most important thing you can do at the start of your novel is to grab readers’ attention with an exciting opening! I’m not talking car chases—human conflict and emotion can sizzle just as much as a bank robbery if you play your cards right. A solid, action-filled opening should include the main character facing a problem, experiencing early setbacks, meeting friends along the way, getting rejected by their love interest, hitting rock bottom, then rising up to defeat their antagonist and win their beloved’s affection. It’s a lot to do, but if you use your elements of craft and write lean, muscular prose, you should be able to accomplish all of this by the bottom of page 500.

Stakes

Never take readers’ interest for granted. It doesn’t matter if you’ve got a colossal payoff on page 501 if you haven’t earned their attention by page 500. They need a reason to care—what’s at stake in your book? What’s your protagonist’s reward for success? What’s the penalty for failure? Stakes give readers a reason to care what’s happening, and it’s of paramount importance that you communicate those stakes within the first 125,000-odd words of your manuscript.

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photo by Steve Greer

Characters

The most important element of any novel? Characters. Lots of ‘em. Good guys, bad guys, medium guys, love interests, chatty BFFs, people to bump into accidentally while at the grocery store, ancillary people milling around the edges of your scenes to lend verisimilitude to the world you’ve constructed on paper, the mascot of the local sports team. You need each one of these to make an appearance somewhere between page one and page 500, though with how little time editors have, I’d shoot for page 475.

Ending

Wrapping things up in a satisfying conclusion is probably the most important thing you can do in your novel’s first 500 pages. If an agent reads to the end of your book and it still isn’t holding their interest, they probably aren’t going to turn to the next page.

I know this is a lot to take in, but I believe in you. Master these elements, and you’ll be able to polish up those initial 500 pages to get agents and editors begging for more. They may even request your full manuscript!

What are your tips for making the first 500 pages shine? Share your thoughts in the comments!

About Bill Ferris [2]

After college, Bill Ferris [3] left Nebraska for Florida to become a rich and famous rock star. Failing that, he picked up the pen to become a rich and famous novelist. He now lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and looks forward to a life of poverty and ridicule.