Saturday, 13 August 2011

The Importance of the Opening Chapter

To continue the theme of the previous article about how to tease your reader, one of the most important devices for luring the reader is the opening chapter of your novel.

Why should you write a compelling opening chapter? Because it is your chance to first grab the editor’s attention, then hopefully it will grab your reader's attention.

Your potential reader is discerning. They take only a few seconds to read the first few lines before they decide to buy your book. Those first few lines will be the difference between getting the reader to carry on reading, or being left on the shelf with other unread novels.

Think of it like fishing. You have to hook the reader first with your bait – the opening chapter. Then you reel them in bit by bit with the rest of the story, until the final chapter, when you can finally let them go.

How can a writer do that?

There are many ways to do it, but you should aim to seize the reader’s attention and curiosity from the very first words. 

There are lots of things to get right in a first chapter. It’s very easy for writers to become carried away and forget about to tell the reader about the obvious things like the setting, the nature of the conflict or even the name of the main character.

Your reader needs to know where and when the story is taking place and who the main character is, right from the outset. Remember, writing is about subtlety, so you don’t necessarily have to overload the reader with details. Instead, hint at these and let the intrigue do the work for you by creating curiosity about your character and his or her situation.

Always start with your protagonist rather than minor characters; otherwise you could confuse your reader as to whose story you are telling. You need to have your character connect immediately with the reader.

Most novels quickly establish what’s going on by having the character active within in the scene, as opposed to writing a long block of description about what the character is doing, where they are going, who they are meeting, what they might have for dinner etc. In other words, open at a turning point in the character’s life; a moment of change, a crisis - get the character involved straight away.

Don’t spend four or five pages writing about the lead up to the turning point of your character’s life, the catalyst that propels the story – jump right in at that important moment. By getting the character involved, it means you also are also getting the reader involved. For example:

John left work just after five and made his way to the train station. He meandered onto his usual platform to wait for his train and thought about his stressful day. He hoped tomorrow would be better, but his thoughts were broken by a loud noise to his left, an explosion

This would bore your reader. Instead, try something like this:

The explosive flash snapped across the train station and ripped John from the platform…

That will instantly spark curiosity and a need to know what happens next.

Don’t make the opening complicated and don’t write pages of boring back story or the character’s life history either, because this will instantly kill any intrigue or curiosity you’ve established. Back story can come later by sprinkling information throughout the novel as it progresses.

You idea is that you need to create a sense of immediacy straight away.

As well as opening a chapter with action, you could start it with dialogue, particularly if it’s a strong, catchy opening line to whet the reader’s appetite. Dialogue helps establish your character’s personality, it will set the scene and it will inform the reader of what is happening at that precise moment in the character’s life and it will also establish POV.

Let the reader share the dilemma your character faces at every opportunity.

The opening chapter can be atmospheric, tense, puzzling, action packed…as long as it grabs the reader and keeps them enthralled as to ‘what happens next’ without giving too much away.

Remember to end your first chapter on a climax – and invite the reader to read on.

What not to do…

  • Don’t use clichéd openings, like the now famous, ‘It was a dark and stormy night…’ This speaks for itself. 
  • Don’t spend three chapters setting the scene with no hint of your protagonist until page 4.
  • Don’t use boring dialogue to open your novel – be dynamic, get the reader’s attention and stir their curiosity.
  • Don’t start off with the weather. Bring the weather in later, but avoid wherever possible beginning your novel with it, otherwise you may fall into the cliché trap.
  • Don’t start with minor characters 
  • Don’t open your novel with the weather. 

Read the first chapter of famous novels or your favourite authors. What method has the author used to introduce the main character and the conflict of the story? How much description or action and dialogue are there? Is the setting and the tone established straight away?

Don’t worry too much about your opening chapter when you write your first draft because the tweaking and polishing comes from the editing process afterward. You’ll have the time to reflect and think about how you want the chapter to open, how you will hook your reader, entice them and tease them.

It’s not uncommon to move chapters around at the edit stage and replace your opening chapter with another one, or rewrite it completely. How you do it is up to you.

Mickey Spillane summed it up perfectly: “The first chapter sells the book. The last chapter sells the next book.”


Next week: Making the reader care about your characters and themes
 

2 comments:

  1. So I should start with the weather? ;-p I've heard that so much at conferences, yet I continuously heard stories in the read and critiques that started with the weather. It was surprising how many used that to jump in. I imagine that's why it's a no-no. Great advice in this post! Beginnings are hard, to be sure, and knowing what to write, what to hint at and what to wait on can be so tricky.

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  2. Hi Shannon

    This still causes debate. As you point out, because the weather is used in so many novels/stories, it has actually become a cliche, hence the advice not to start a story with it.

    I think if handled with some descriptive flourishes and panache, the weather could form an opening to a SHORT story, however I would advise against starting a novel this way unless the weather is paramount to the actual story. That's not to say you can't hint at the weather in order to create a sense of atmosphere because this also creates a sense of scene.

    My advice is to think about the opening carefully and how you want to get the reader's attention. The weather can then form a secondary device to paint the background. Just don't start with 'it was a dark and stormy night...'! :)

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