How To Get The Most From Your Opening Chapter
Every writer knows how important it is to make the opening chapter work. It’s the difference between enticing the reader, agent or publisher to read your story, or not doing grabbing their attention at all.
There’s a lot of advice about openings, and a lot of pressure to get them right, but how do you define what is ‘right’?
In truth there is no ‘right’ way, because every reader is different and every agent/publisher is different, however, no one would argue that writers should open their stories in an interesting, dynamic or riveting way. Something that entices, something that shocks, maybe. Or something that sparks their curiosity. So you see, while there is no right way, there are many other ways that collectively make it seem right, but one thing is sure – you may only have a few paragraphs to grab your reader’s attention and win them over.
That’s because readers tend to glance at the cover and strapline, then they might browse the first few paragraphs or quickly skip-read through the chapter to check out your quality and style of writing and form an impression of you as a writer. But whether it’s a kindle reader or a potential agent, they will look at the first line and first paragraph and decide whether to read on. And that’s why the opening is so important – it’s your best (and probably only) chance to show readers, publishers or agents what you can do.
To get the most from your opening chapter, it must accomplish several things within the first chapter – it must hook, entice, set the tone, introduce the protagonist and introduce his/her goal and perhaps hint at the antagonist. That’s probably why writers struggle with opening chapters - they try too hard to create the ‘right’ opening.
Instead, concentrate on the best opening, not the ‘right’ one. Try to include the following elements. With the exception of the hook, which is always first, they are in no particular order.
Hook the readers - That’s your way of grabbing the reader’s attention. How you hook them is down to you, but it can be anything – a shocking scene, a defining action or something is said that creates a reaction. It can be one powerful line. It’s up to you to create that hook.
Entice – Once hooked, entice the reader and pull them into the story. They love anything that spikes their curiosity, so try to create that initial impact – it could be interesting, surreal, dark or even funny. It’s entirely up to you. But get straight into the story.
Introduce your protagonist – Let the reader know who the main character is. The quicker you do that, the easier it will be for the reader to bond with the character and care about him/her. That will ensure they invest in the story and keep reading.
Jump right in – Begin the story at a key moment or turning point in the main character’s life. Don’t waste time writing a page describing the character’s background, what he does, where he’s from etc., – save that for later. Your main aim is to jump right into his or her story at the most crucial moment so that you grab the reader from the outset.
Set the tone – Choose your words carefully to create the overall tone of the story – whether it’s a dark story, a lighthearted one, humorous or scary. Let your reader know, so they form a deep understanding of the story. Don’t forget to maintain the tone throughout the story.
Introduce the protagonist’s goal – The main character’s goal is the driving force of the story, so the earlier you show this, the likelier the reader is to understand and empathise with the character.
Hint at the antagonist – Let the reader know early on who your main character is up against and why. This reinforces the story arc, but it also helps the reader further understand your main character’s motivations.
Don’t make the first chapter long. The idea with the opening chapter is to grab the reader, entice them, tell them whose story it is and why and what’s at stake, then quickly move into chapter two, which acts as the anchor to the rest of the story.
Don’t over explain things, don’t info dump and don’t throw pages of background at the reader, otherwise you will kill any chance of sparking the reader’s interest. Instead, get in there, grab your reader and don’t let go until the last page.