Judged by the fifth line

Five Line Test

Some readers (and editors) will judge your book by the first five lines

Sean McMullen|5 January 2015

Like to know how it looks from the other side of the submissions desk? When I visited the late Peter MacNamara, publisher of Aphelion Press, he challenged me to score a pile of manuscripts out of ten by reading the first page. I gave very similar scores to his by reading the first four or five lines. None scored well. None of those first few lines had any sort of hook or intriguing elements, and there was little incentive to reader further. Was a masterpiece rejected for want of a well-written five lines? Sadly, we’ll never know…

Here are twenty lines from four novels. All of them contain hooks, though the hooks used by these authors are very different.

There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife. The knife had a handle of polished black bone, and a blade finer and sharper than any razor. If it sliced you, you might not even know you had been cut, not immediately.
The knife had done almost everything it was brought into the house to do, and both the blade and the handle were wet.

That is of course from ‘The Graveyard Book’ by Neil Gaiman, winner of the Hugo and Locus Awards and the Carnegie and Newberry Medals. Those lines are thoroughly creepy without resorting to explicit gore. Apparently a terrifying killer is on the loose, at night, and that most of a household has just been murdered. So what next?

These lines say edgy read if you buy this book. I did, after reading them over someone’s shoulder at a convention.

Now here are five very different lines, this time from the dedication at the front of a novel:

They may be called the Palace Guard, the city Guard, or the Patrol. Whatever their name, their purpose in heroic fantasy is identical: it is, round about Chapter Three (or ten minutes into the film) to rush into the room, attack the hero one at a time, and be slaughtered. No-one ever asks them if they wanted to.
This book is dedicated to those fine men.

No prizes for picking Terry Pratchett’s ‘Guards! Guards!’ I think it’s his best work, and so do a lot of other people. The five lines say that this is a fantasy novel about underdogs, that you are going to like them, and that you will get a thoroughly different take on the fantasy epic.

It was the first of Pratchett’s books that I bought, and I bought it on the basis of that dedication.

How about science fiction? Could you stop reading after these five lines?
The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.
“It’s not like I’m using,” Case heard someone say, as he shouldered his way through the crowd around the door of the Chat. “It’s like my body’s developed this massive drug deficiency.” It was a Sprawl voice and a Sprawl joke. The Chatsubo was a bar for professional expatriates: you could drink there for a week and never hear two words in Japanese.

William Gibson’s ‘Neuromancer’ won the Hugo, Nebula and Phillip K. Dick Awards. When I gave it my five lines test, its first five lines gave me the same thrill as The Graveyard Book. I knew I was in for a spectacular read.

If you are going to write retro science fiction, you need to know retro’s look and feel. Here is the look and feel of 1897:

No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.

Not many science fiction books can boast of being in print for over a century, but ‘The War of the Worlds’ by H. G. Wells has never yet dropped out of the catalogues. Some vast and powerful civilization is watching us, and it is way, way ahead of us. Worse, they don’t sound like they have our best interests at heart. How do we compete? Better read on and find out.

Think back over those four lots of five lines. All of them previewed the style, dropped clues about the setting, and told you a bit about the plot. What about the hook? A hook does not have to be a killer sentence, even though it often is. It can be a title, for example. Jurassic Park: Jurassic = dinosaurs. Park = fun park. Hey, dinosaurs in a present day theme park! Where can I get tickets – or buy the book?

Warning: NEVER deceive in those first five lines. Disappoint the reader, and they’ll never come back.
What about putting my money where my mouth is? Okay:

The girl moved with the calm confidence of a thief who knew that she would not be disturbed. The crew of the three-hundred-foot beamflash tower had deserted the beamflash gallery at its summit, and the great eye of their receptor telescope stared blankly at a tower on the eastern horizon. Although mounted to look perpetually east for signals from the Numurkah tower, the communications telescope …

Must stop there, I’ve reached the fifth line. The look and feel is steampunk, hacking, an advanced society, and a promise of workable retrotech. Souls in the Great Machine did not win a Hugo, but it came 10th in the Hugo preliminary voting for 2000, and is still my best selling novel. I made an honest promise in those first five lines, and I delivered. A lot of people appreciated that.


10 thoughts on “Judged by the fifth line

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