“Page 5 Test”

Stop twitching. This post is not a 5-page test, so I don’t care how scarred you are from childhood test-taking trauma. Build a bridge and get over it. Then keep reading in order to learn something that may help your writing.You okay now? Good. Here’s the scoop. . . . Thanks to a giveaway on Goodreads, I recently received a free copy of Darcy Pattison’s book Start Your Novel. When reading it, my interest was captured by one of her ideas for checking the characterization in a novel’s opening—she calls it the “Page 5 Test.” (See, I told you it wasn’t a 5-page test. You should have trusted me. I’m very reliable. Except when I’m lying.)  Start Your Novel
 Runaway Twin Not only did I decide to use the Page 5 Test to check my own work-in-progress, but as a bonus exercise, I decided to run a Page 5 Test on a children’s novel I’m currently reading—Runaway Twin by Peg Kehret. Based on Darcy Pattison’s idea, here’s what I did:

  • I read the beginning of Runaway Twin, only going as far as what would equal approximately five double-spaced pages of a typed manuscript.
  • After I finished reading, I listed everything I’d learned about the main character from those opening pages. Here’s my list:
  1. The main character lives with a foster mother named Rita.
  2. The main character’s name is Sunny.
  3. Sunny is 13 years old.
  4. She loves Twinkies and junk food, but Rita is a health nut.
  5. Sunny is opinionated. (As the first-person narrator, she states: “In my opinion it is cruel and unusual punishment to put a thirteen-year-old girl who was raised on junk food into a home that serves tofu and cauliflower.”)
  6. Sunny wears her hair in a ponytail (at least sometimes).
  7. She has switched foster homes frequently, running away from at least a couple of them. (This also tells me Sunny isn’t afraid to take action when she sees the need.)
  8. She seems to like Rita (despite all the tofu and cauliflower) and doesn’t plan to run away from her.
  9. Sunny doesn’t consider herself a “bad kid,” although she doesn’t do much school work because she knows she’ll just get moved to a new home and school again anyway.

Notice the variety of things Peg Kehret wove into those opening pages. There are basic things such as the main character’s name and age. There are bits about Sunny’s family situation (foster child) and a glimpse into her outlook on life (Why bother with school work if you’re going to get moved again?). And there’s the barest mention of her appearance.

In only a handful of pages, Peg Kehret effectively pulled me into caring about her main character by not skimping on the information about Sunny and by making sure the details she included provided depth, not an inundation of surface-level facts. (Hey, I’d rather know Sunny has the guts to run away from a bad foster family than know how tall she is and whether or not she has a dimple in her chin.)

So consider printing out the first five pages of your own WIP. Read ’em. Then make a list.

What details are revealed about your main character? What isn’t revealed? Are you building a strong character with a unique voice, or is your protagonist coming across as shallow and boring? By running Darcy Pattison’s Page 5 Test, you may be surprised at what you discover, and you may get ideas for strengthening your novel’s opening pages.

Besides, you’ve got to try this. Know why? There’s gonna be a test tomorrow.

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T. P. Jagger
Along with his MUF posts, T. P. Jagger can be found at www.tpjagger.com, where he provides brief how-to writing-tip videos as The 3-Minute Writing Teacher plus original, free readers’ theater scripts for middle-grade classrooms. For T. P.’s 10-lesson, video-based creative writing course, check him out on Curious.com.
  1. I LOVE this idea and will use it! Now! I think it can be applied to Picture books too… not the first 5 pages, of course, but it can make me stop and analyze my characters better. Thanks

  2. Dear T.P.,
    Thanks for sharing this page 5 test with us. You have a humorous flare. I love it.