I can’t tell you how often I started writing a book only to realize the story really began in the second or third chapter. When I critiqued writers’ manuscripts the same thing happened. If I told one author the book started in the wrong place I told fifty. It’s common to start the story too soon. The process of warming up to your book, getting to know your characters, getting comfortable with all the backstory shouldn’t actually end up in the first chapter. You should know all this before you sit down to write…whether you write it down or mull it around in your head.
So how do you decide on a starting point? Many writing coaches advise authors to begin the story as close to the first conflict as possible. What does that mean?
Put your main character in his/her ordinary world before slamming them into the story conflict. The reader wants to see them react to life as they’ve known it before it’s about to change. And the character could be inanimate like the sea. The sea is calm before it turns stormy. The sky is stormy before it clears. The hero is happy before the day goes to sh*t. You get the picture.
During this short introduction to the main character and the story, we should learn something about her. She could be leaving the house for work, then the cat sneaks out because the door doesn’t close all the way. She’ll have to call her new sexy neighbor again because she’s running late. Worry. He’s going to think she’s a flake or is interested in him. Well she is…both. The rain hasn’t stopped for two weeks and caused the wood to swell. He’s pretty handy around his house. Hmmm. She drops the papers she’s holding. The red ink runs on the pages from the raindrops. She curses the rain, but doesn’t actually use profanity. She says to herself–Whatever…most of the kids can’t read yet anyway.
This is just a general rundown. So what do we learn about her in that brief introduction? She teaches youngsters. Has a sexy new neighbor. Is a little flustered. Has a cat she cares about. Seems nice but realistic. This isn’t the first time the cat has escaped. It’s raining and she is late for work. Hopefully the reader imagined more, too.
Do we want to know more about her? Sure. Are we worried about her? Yes? No? Not yet?
Next. What could happen to hook you so you would want to read more?
From this opening I think the writer has several options to introduce the transition from ordinary world to something happens depending on the genre.
- Another woman could leave the neighbor’s house and kiss him good-bye.
- Backing out of the driveway, a truck could swerve out of control and hit the heroine’s car.
- An alien spacecraft could land in her front yard.
- A ghost could pop into her front seat.
- Her fangs could descend in jealousy.
- Her abusive ex-boyfriend could call.
These are a few options.
But what we decide determines the promise of the book. Here is where the reader figures out the genre, decides whether or not this book might be for them. Your voice (the unique style of your writing) and person, tense, pov, as well as word choices define the book at this point.
In a movie or book, the promise is defined in the first ten percent. Included in the first ten percent will be the locale, the identity of the main cast of characters, the style, the genre, the main characters’ goals and motivations, and ideally, the main conflict. Other conflicts may play a part in getting to the resolution of the goal, but the main conflict should be at least hinted at in the opening ten percent.
Depending on the length of your story, the first chapter may not include all the characters etc. But in the first 200-500 words of any book, the writer must hook the reader. Most readers won’t skim more than a few pages to get into a book. They may skim after they’re curious about what’s going to happen. And different hooks work for different genres. Read some opening scenes from books in your genre and see how best-selling authors do it. I prefer reading examples from their early work, before they made a name for themselves. Those books defined them to their reading audience.
And I know it’s hard, but tighten that opening until it squeaks. Pacing is the rate that the reader is pulled into and through your story. Genre will influence your word choices, but so will pacing. Horror pacing and word choices will be somewhat different from romance, but may be similar to suspense. Give the reader a breather every now and then especially after an exceptionally exhausting scene. The ones when you try to get the reader’s pulse rate going. That’s great writing, but you don’t want to kill your favorite readers.
Please leave me a comment if you found this helpful and if you have something to add, your comments are welcome. Thank you.
View my other blog here Eliza March Writes
One thought on “How to Write an Opening Chapter”
Excellent article on hooking the reader in first paragraph, etc. Thank you!