Friday, August 3, 2012

Start with a Bang: Strong First Chapters

Last week I talked about the promise a first chapter makes to the reader, and what you should include. This essay from Advanced Plotting continues with advice on getting off to a fast start so you create a strong first chapter.

The Fast Start

An opening introduces many elements of the story. Yet you can’t take too long to set the scene, or your readers may lose interest. You want to start in a moment of action, where something is changing, and cut the background. But don’t rush things — take a little time to set up the situation, so it makes sense and we care about the characters and what’s happening to them.

Fast, but not too fast. How do you find the balance?

You can test your opening by seeing how much you can cut. What if you delete the first sentence, the first paragraph, the first page? Does the story still make sense? Does it get off to a faster start? For a novel, what if you cut the whole first chapter, or several chapters? If you can’t cut, can you condense?

On the other hand, if your beginning feels confusing or rushed, you might want to try starting earlier in the story. Try setting up a small problem that grabs the reader’s attention, luring them in until you can get to the main problem. In my novel The Well of Sacrifice, the Maya are dealing with famine, disease, and marauders in the early chapters, even before the king dies and an evil high priest tries to take over. That gives readers time to understand these characters and their unusual world.

My Egyptian mystery, The Eyes of Pharaoh, opens with the main character running — an active scene, even though she’s merely running for pleasure. In the rest of that first chapter, Seshta, a young temple dancer, is focused on a dance contest she wants to win. This introduces a challenge and a goal, and the contest is a major subplot throughout the book, though not the primary plot line. By the end of the first chapter, Seshta’s friend Reya, a young soldier, warns her that Egypt may be in danger. She doesn’t believe him, but the reader has seen the seeds of the main plot, which will develop when Reya disappears and Seshta searches for him, uncovering a plot against the Pharaoh.

The inciting incident — the problem that gets the story going — should happen as soon as possible, but not until the moment is ripe. The reader must have enough understanding of the character and situation to make the incident meaningful. Too soon, and the reader is confused. Too late, and the reader gets bored first.
Options for Fast Starts:

· Start in the action, at a moment of change. Then work in the back story.
· Start with two people on the page.
· Start in the middle of a fight or other conflict.
· Start with a cliffhanger — something powerful about to happen.
· Start with a small problem that leads to the big problem, or is an example of the main problem.

Keeping Your Tone

With all the pressure to write a great opening, people often struggle to find an opening scene that is dramatic, powerful, and eye-catching! Something that will make the reader want to keep reading!!!

We may see our opening 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 opening paragraphs as an ad may not be best for the rest of the manuscript. A clever, funny hook is great — but only if the rest of the book is also clever and funny.

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.

The same holds true for stories on a smaller scale. Even if your story only lasts a few pages, your readers are making judgments during your opening lines. Don’t confuse them by starting one way and then turning the story into something else.

Next week: Opening Exercises

In Advanced Plotting, you’ll get two dozen essays like this one on the craft of writing. Advanced Plotting is designed for intermediate and advanced writers: you’ve finished a few stories, read books and articles on writing, taken some classes, attended conferences. But you still struggle with plot, or suspect that your plotting needs work. 

Advanced Plotting can help. Buy Advanced Plotting for $9.99 in paperback, $4.99 ebook, on Amazon,  B&N or Smashwords.


  1. Your point about two people/characters on the opening page or pages. Excellent point. So often I open a book and I am introduced to four or five characters at once. Too much!

  2. Thanks for the excellent reminders.