Breaking Our Own Rules: A Review of The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman

“Most people are against books on writing on principle. So am I. It’s ridiculous to set down rules when it comes to art. Most of the truly great artists have broken all the rules, and this is precisely what has made them great. What would have become of Beethoven’s music if he’d chased rules instead of inspiration? Of van Gogh’s paintings?”

So begins The First Five Pages, by Noah Lukeman. The funny thing is, The First Five Pages is a book on writing that opens with an indictment against books on writing. Now, I appreciate what Lukeman goes on to do in the rest of that opening chapter. He distinguishes, it appears, between storytelling and writing. Storytelling is an art. Writing is, but is less of one than storytelling. Lukeman proposes that rules can be set down when it comes to writing.

If he adhered to this proposal (that rules can be set down for writing, but not storytelling) I’d agree with him. Sadly, he doesn’t.

First, though, credit needs to be given where credit is due. This is a truly unique book. It’s written from the perspective of an agent or editor who has just received a manuscript from an aspiring author. Lukeman, as a former agent and editor himself, outlines what things people in these professions look for when reading a manuscript. He claims that they are simply looking for a way to reject your work (and he gives backup for that).

Then, going in order of what an agent or an editor looks at first, he sets out rules to avoid getting rejected.

Let me say this: this book is helpful in many regards, but perhaps best in the sense that it teaches you to think like a writer. I found myself, during the days that I was reading it, suddenly paying attention a bit more to language, to imagery around me, and trying to write something about experiences I was going through in my mind. That’s helpful because, as Orson Scott Card reminds us that, “we storytellers, like fishermen, are constantly dragging an ‘idea net’ along with us.”

This book helps train you to drag that idea net along.

Nevertheless, ultimately, I think this book breaks its own rule. It creates rules for storytelling especially in the chapters and sections on creating likable characters, pacing, setting, characterization, and even its chapter on viewpoint. It gives us many “thou shalt nots” even though, as it itself claimed, it is ridiculous to do so when it comes to an art like storytelling.

Even with that problem, though, there is still much to learn from this book. It’s not perfect. No book really is. But so long as we realize that the “rules” set down for storytelling are opinions and not objective facts, we can enjoy and learn from this book. I recommend it.


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