The opening chapter is arguably one of the most important, and often re-written, chapters in an author’s novel. Even J. K. Rowling struggled with her first chapter. Rumour has it, she rewrote the first chapter of the Philosopher’s Stone a whopping 15 times before she was happy with it.
The Writer Community knows how important it is to hook your reader from the very start, so we have dedicated this blog post to helping you write an interesting opening chapter.
There are tons of ways you can start your novel, but they almost all boil down to three main categories:
- In the middle of conversation
- In the middle of the action
- With world building/ backstory
Depending on how you write them, each of these categories can make or break your opening chapter, let’s look closer at each one
In the middle of conversation
Starting in the middle of dialogue can be effective when done well. It catches the reader off guard and instantly piques their interest, making them want to read on. A word of warning though, it can be one of the hardest openings to execute properly.
When opening on dialogue, you need to make sure that what is being said is significant, hints at the story’s theme or conflict, and has context immediately after it. I would recommend a short line of snappy, strong dialogue followed by context around who has said it and where they are. If the dialogue is pointless or if you launch right into the story with no context, it is likely the reader will become either bored or confused. In both scenarios, you will lose the reader before they finish the first chapter.
In the middle of the action
Starting in the middle of the action, otherwise known as ‘in media res’ is one of the most popular ways to open a novel. The reason it is so popular is that it launches the reader right into the story, grabbing the reader with excitement and intrigue right from the start. It also causes the reader to ask questions: Who is this? What are they doing? And the desire to see those questions answered is what keeps the reader engaged and reading on.
When starting in media res, it is important to make sure that the moment you choose is crucial to the plot, and that it is an exciting action filled event. You want the reader to be curious, not just about what is going on, but also what led up to that point in the story. Not only that, you want the reader to care about what is happening and why. It is a fine balance between action and information, and you need to avoid info dumping in that first chapter. Instead, pepper the backstory throughout the action to give the reader the context they need to care about the characters.
One word of caution with starting in the middle of the action. In your novel you need to be constantly raising the stakes and building towards a climax. For this reason it is important that the first chapter of your novel is just the start of the action, not the most exciting event in the book. Most writers when they think action, think of an epic battle scene or something just as dramatic, but starting in media res could be as simple as a woman bursting into a coffee shop to order coffee before she is late for her meeting. Because at the meeting she expects to be promoted, and if she is promoted then she will be able to attend a work conference that will change her career… You see how the story builds from that first scene? Keep this in mind as you write your first chapter and ensure you always up the stakes.
With world building or backstory
Starting with the world can be very effective in grounding the reader in the story and really establishing the setting for the reader, especially if it is new to them (think fantasy or historical fiction). It can be done in several ways, maybe with a creation myth or even just the character going about their normal day within the world. The most important thing to remember is that world building can be overwhelming, so start by focusing on something small and draw out from there. For example, you could show the world through the character’s eyes, what do they react to and what do they see, is it normal or abnormal? This will tell the reader a lot about the world the character is inhabiting, as well as creating a connection with the character.
There are also some fantastic examples of authors starting with a backstory. Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude is one of them: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” These types of openings establish a ‘story-telling’ tone, launches the reader quickly into the tale that is being told and again creates that instant connection with the character.
With both techniques, you need to ensure that you are not info dumping in the first chapter. Throwing a load of information at the reader in the first few paragraphs will usually cause them to turn off and stop reading. Make sure that you are only revealing crucially important information in these first few paragraphs that will intrigue the read and pique their curiosity.
Side note to these opening lines. A great opening foreshadows what will come next, both in tone and in theme. If you are writing a dark fantasy but the opening lines are happy and jolly, they are going to be out of tone with the book and risk the reader feeling mis-sold as they continue through the story. Equally, if you set up your themes or ending in the first few lines, the reader will end the book feeling satisfied by a complete and well-rounded story,
Watch out for cliches
I hate being prescriptive with advice, writing is an art form after all. That being said, there are a few openings that have become cliched and, unless you write them really well, might be best to avoid.
The first is to open your novel with the main character waking up, and let’s be honest we have all done it. The reason this kind of opening is frowned upon is that it is boring. Someone waking up and going about their day is not the hook you need to start your novel. So unless they are being woken up by a fire-breathing dragon carrying them off to its lair or something else just as exciting, you should jump ahead to the action and the point that the story really starts heating up.
On a related note, dream sequences are also not the best hook for the opening of your story. Sure they are full of action and intrigue, but once the MC wakes up, and the reader realises it was all a dream, then they feel cheated. Unless the dream is integral to the story (as in, the MC is trapped in a dream world and can’t get out) then it is best not to begin with a dream.
The last well-known cliche to avoid in the opening chapter is a funeral. While a funeral or death scene is full of emotion, if the reader has no context or connection to the character that died or even the character that is mourning them, then it will just fall flat. Save the death/funeral for a later date when it will achieve all the emotional impact you intend it to.
That being said, there are exceptions to every rule. If you feel you have written a stand out opening chapter, but it uses one of those cliches, then go with your instinct. You know your own novel and what works for it. If you feel torn, then send it to your critique partners or beta readers to get their opinions on whether your opening chapter has enough of a hook.
There are a few other elements to consider when choosing how to start your novel. First, is that certain genres often have certain beginnings; Murder Mystery novels for example usually have a dead body in the first chapter (see what I mean about every rule having an exception).
Second is that ‘trends’ can influence opening chapters. At the moment starting with action is very much the preferred way to start a novel, but if you read the classics, many of them start with introspection and description. The most important factor to consider is what your readership likes and the best way to find that out is to ask them! Add a poll to your Instagram or twitter feed, ask your critique partners and beta readers, even ask your friends that enjoy your genre. Knowing what the reader wants and likes can take a lot of the guesswork out of the process.
Should I have a prologue?
Prologues get a bad rep, especially among agents, however I have read many people really enjoy prologues (myself included). To understand more, I asked Tiffany, editor of @burgeondesignandeditorial to give me her professional view:
“The reason they [agents] hate them is because 99.9% of the time they aren’t used effectively. They’re either info-dumping or boring because we don’t have enough context or are just a first chapter in disguise. They absolutely can be done well, though, and I love a good prologue that’s done well!”
If you want to write an effective prologue, then the first thing you need to ask yourself is what sets it apart from a first chapter? If the answer is nothing, then you do not have a prologue, you have Chapter 1. For a prologue to function as a prologue, it must advance the plot and give extra information, such as background information about the story. This information has got to be significant enough that you wouldn’t just include it within the story as a flashback. A prologue is usually out of time sequence as well, maybe it is a window into their childhood, or a significant event in history. If your prologue doesn’t fit into the above situations and you are in doubt whether it is even a prologue, then it is always safer to just make it the first chapter.
But how should you write your first chapter?
Pacing is everything. The first chapter should read quickly and effortlessly. If the reader feels that the first chapter is like wading through treacle, then they won’t continue reading.
Use brief paragraphs and direct prose in your first chapter. Snappy sentences with full stops and not too many commas will grab and keep the reader’s attention. Don’t forget to use strong verbs and avoid being overly descriptive with adjectives and adverbs. Every sentence in your opening should matter, every word needs to count.
If you need more help, then there are a lot of editors who will do a specific critique of your first chapter and help you fine tune these elements.
Finally, if you are really struggling to write your opening chapter, remember you do not have to write in order. Many authors write their opening chapter’s last, that way they can ensure they capture the tone, themes and foreshadow the ending all in that one crucial chapter.
Good luck with writing those opening lines!
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