Part 1 looked at many of the elements required in order to make a first chapter interesting enough for the reader to keep reading, but there are plenty of others at a writer’s disposal. Writers don’t have to use every single one, but they’re important enough for most first chapters if the writer wants to get them right.
Begin the story, Not the Book
Open in media res, the most tense or dramatic moment. Most books start with the beginning of the book, but it’s not the beginning of the story. Writers spend far too long establishing a story at the beginning instead of jumping right into the thick of it from the outset.
The reader will pick up the story as the story unfolds – that’s what storytelling is about.
Somewhere in the first chapter you should let your reader know when and where your story is taking place. That doesn’t mean you write a three page description of the setting, because that will just kill any impetus of the opening chapter. The first chapter really doesn’t need an overload of unnecessary information.
Instead, hint at the setting, or just write a couple of lines to show where and when. That’s all it needs. The reader will fill it the rest.
A Crucial Opening Line
There is a gamut of advice on having a great first line in order to lure the reader. But this is one bit of advice worth taking, because not only are we writers, but we’re also readers, and when we read the first line of a book, we want to be hooked, we want to read on, we want to be entertained and we want that promise of great things to come.
That’s what a first line should deliver. It’s the bait the dangles before your reader, the finger that begs them to follow.
Study some of the opening lines to books and see what makes them work.
Action, dialogue, an interesting line of description…it doesn’t really matter. There is lots of advice telling writers to open with action, but while this is not a bad idea, writers don’t have to open with explosions or a car chase or a shootout with the hero. There are other ways.
Some books open with amazing dialogue. Some open by teasing with intrigue or mystery with a few lines of visual description which provokes the reader, it demands the reader become involved rather than making them stand on the sidelines to watch it unfold, as action scenes do.
Whether it’s a bit of action, a bit of dialogue or a bit of mystery or intrigue, how you open the story is wholly dependent on how well you write it.
Make the Reader Care
Immediacy and emotion makes the reader care about your characters. Establish an emotional connection from the outset and you will have your reader in the palm of your hand. And the best way to create emotion is to throw your main character into danger, to make things almost impossible for him. Or you take from him something that matters, like his house or his wife or children – these are tangible emotions we can all connect with because we know what the feeling of loss is like, we know what it’s like when everything gets on top of us and there seems no way out.
Readers will respond to what they understand, and they all understand raw emotion.
Cast a Flicker of Light
The idea of any first chapter is to whet the reader’s appetite. So rather than illuminate the entire story in the first eight pages or so, simply cast a flicker of light over things. Writers have a habit of explaining everything in the first chapter, so the rest of the story doesn’t have much substance, subtext, twist or much plot to give.
Hold back. Don’t tell them everything. Tease the reader. Hint. Whet their appetite. Drive them nuts to know more.
Just cast a flicker of light over the things you want them to know. For now.
In Part 3, we’ll conclude with a final list of elements to include in a successful first chapter.
Next week: Making First Chapters Successful – Part 3