I’m going to spend the next few weeks reviewing tips for opening your novel strong.
People often struggle to find an opening scene that is dramatic, powerful, eye-catching! Something that will make the reader want to keep reading! We may see our opening pages as something almost separate from the full manuscript—something we can submit to a first pages critique, or send to an editor or agent who only wants to see a few pages as a sample. But treating the first chapter as an ad may not be best for the chapter, or the rest of the manuscript.
Suzanne Morgan Williams, author of Bull Rider, gave a talk at our New Mexico fall retreat on first chapters. Suzanne noted that the first chapter makes a promise about the rest of the book.
Many readers will browse a book’s opening pages in a library or bookstore, to decide if they want to take the book home. If you offer the reader a fast-paced, action-packed opening, when your book is really a subtle emotional drama with lyrical descriptive writing, you’re going to disappoint the readers who enjoyed the opening. Even worse, readers who would have enjoyed the whole book might never get past the opening page.
What You Promise
The first chapter should identify your book’s genre. This can be trickier than it sounds. Say it’s a romance, but the main character doesn’t meet the love interest until later in the book. Can you at least suggest her loneliness, or desire for romance? (And get that love interest in there as soon as possible!) Or perhaps you’re writing a story involving magic, or time travel, or a step into another dimension. Even if you start in a realistic contemporary setting, try to hint at what’s to come. Maybe the main character is wishing that magic existed—that’s enough to prepare the reader.
In The Ghost on the Stairs, we don’t find out that the narrator’s sister has seen a ghost until the end of chapter 2. But on the opening page, she comments that the hotel “looks haunted” and is “spooky.” Those words suggest that a ghost story may be coming.
The first chapters should also identify the setting. This includes when and where we are, if it’s historical or set in another country or world. In a contemporary novel, you may not identify a specific city, but the reader should have a feel for whether this is inner-city, small-town or whatever.
Be careful if you have a major change in location coming. You may want to set the main character in their ordinary world, before you take them on your journey, but that can mislead the reader into thinking that it’s a story about the ordinary world. Consider including some kind of early hints that change is to come.
Your opening pages should focus on your main character. You may find exceptions to this rule, but your readers will assume that whoever is prominent in the opening pages is the main character. Switching can cause confusion. You should also establish your point of view early. If you’ll be switching points of view, don’t wait too long to make the first switch.
And of course, you want some kind of challenge or conflict in your opening chapter. This doesn’t have to be the main plot problem—you may need additional set up before your main character takes on that challenge, or even knows about it. But try to make sure that your opening problem relates to the main problem. It may even lead to it.
In The Ghost on the Stairs, Tania faints at the end of chapter 1. Jon does not yet know why, but this opening problem leads to the main problem—she’d seen a ghost. If I’d used an entirely different opening problem, say stress with their new stepfather, that would have suggested a family drama, not a paranormal adventure.
So try to get these elements in there quickly—genre, setting, main character, and challenge.
First chapters are a struggle for many of us. Few authors wind up using their original opening. We may throw it out, and just start with chapter 2, or we may write something entirely different. The final version of the first chapter may actually be the last thing we write! Knowing the rest of your story is important for figuring out what your first chapters should be. Don’t stress about the first chapter during your first draft, but make sure you fix it later. Keep in mind that fixing it may involve throwing it out altogether!
See also: my post on Open Strong: First Chapter Exercises.