Part 1 and Part 2 looked at an array of elements to include to make a first chapter successful and stand out to your readers, but since there are so many to consider, we’ll conclude with a few more to ensure that the opening of your book hooks the reader from the very first word and keeps them hooked.
This is something that can be hinted. You don’t have to club the reader over the head in order for them to get the main theme that runs through your book. Themes are the veins that run through every story, and your reader will easily pick up on them. The more they enjoy the story, the more things they will understand.
Often a story has a central main theme – betrayal or revenge, for instance. So by hinting at these themes through subtext, through character emotions and thoughts or carefully placed flashbacks, you can establish the main theme very easily.
Be Visual, not Verbose
The description, or how you apply it, in your first chapter is a benchmark of what the reader can expect throughout the book. That means that if you write the first chapter like an amateur, the rest of the book will look amateurish as well.
But if you take the time to describe visually (show, don’t tell), then the reader will fall for your unique voice and writing style, and so they will know what to expect in the coming chapters.
So don’t tell the reader about the main character standing in the rain waiting for the moment to get the bad guy. Show the reader. Describe. You can tell the reader everything, but unless you allow the reader to visualise the situation through your description, there is no point to the book.
That’s because it’s all in the detail of your description.
What Lies Beneath
What lies beneath the opening chapter?
The whole story, that’s what. The first chapter serves as a synopsis of the entire story – in other words, it will hint at everything the reader wants. It should hint at what the story is about, why it’s taking place, what might happen. It should have motive, emotion, themes, conflict...all the things the reader absolutely wants and expects.
The first chapter is an appetiser. Make sure it leaves the reader wanting more.
Avoid Exposition and Info-Dumps
Many first time authors do this. They begin the first chapter with the entire backstory of the main character, then go on to explain what the story is about and then finish with some huge info dumps. This will kill the story dead.
The reader won’t care one bit for the main character or his/her story because they’ve had to read ten pages of boring rubbish to get to the main point of the story. Any drama that an opening chapter should create will be swallowed up by extraneous drivel.
This is why we tell writers to be lean with exposition and backstory, which can come in the proceeding chapters, bit by bit. So if you want a great first chapter, avoid unnecessary info dumps and huge passages of narrative and instead jump right into the story.
Some will argue that there’s nothing wrong with prologues. And there isn’t anything wrong with them. If you want a prologue, write one.
But if you want to engage your reader, avoid them. Prologues do kill the story. You’re asking the reader to read through some boring stuff that relates to the story somehow, but where nothing actually happens. There is no conflict, no emotion or descriptive essence before the reader finally gets to the first chapter and by then they’re already bored and really couldn’t care less.
The fact is that almost all prologues are not necessary. The writer will say that they can’t find anywhere else in the book to put this information, which somehow relates to the story. No? So they can’t use a flashback? They can’t use memories through a character? (thus strengthening characterisation in the process). They can’t use it in dialogue? They can’t feed it through expositional snippets during more dramatic moments? They can’t write anything?
A prologue doesn’t actually add much to the story. It simply sucks up all the tension and drama and mystery of the opening chapter and may well mean the reader abandons the story. They probably have better things to do than read a prologue about nothing in particular and where nothing actually happens.
The thing with opening chapters is that the reader will often remember them, because it’s their first introduction to the story and the characters, but also of you, the writer. It’s your style and voice. The way you write is just as important as all the elements that go into making a first chapter successful.
Every writer is individual, but it’s how they engage with the reader that makes the reader come back for the second novel, the third and so on. And they will come back, as long as the first chapter hooks them and keeps them reading.
Next week: Resisting the Urge to Explain