Novels and Nonsense #3 – Opening Chapters
Anyone who’s ever received a first chapter review from me will have probably been a victim of my ‘opening chapters are vitally important’ preach. As annoying as my preaching may be though, it is true. While the first few lines of a book are also important, let’s face it: the majority of readers will give the author a chance regardless of the quality of those lines. If the author still hasn’t impressed by the end of the first chapter though, there may be trouble ahead.
So. How do you become the author whose readers pass that first chapter mark? That’s what I’m here to hopefully help you with!
First chapters can be tricky. You want to introduce your main characters, but not give too much away. You want to make things interesting, but not go too over the top. You want people to care about your characters and their situation, you want to catch your readers’ interest, and you want your readers to read on. Achieving all of that in one chapter, especially the opening one, isn’t easy. With a good balance of detail, characterisation, plot development, and description among other things though, you’ll soon be writing the most supercalifragilisticexpialidocious opening chapter ever.
My first snippet of advice is to really pack a punch with your opening paragraph. By starting off awesomely, your reader will be more tolerant of any not so awesome parts that follow. That great first paragraph will spark some hope in their minds whenever they begin thinking your story isn’t for them, and voila, it’s likely they’ll stick with you for longer. As for how to create that first chapter awesomeness, there are bucket loads of ways to do it.
1) Mystery: a bit of mystery always go down a storm, especially in the first paragraph. It’s what’s most likely to get your readers to read on because, well, they want the answer to said mystery!
2) Strong description: this is a tricky one because it’s not to everyone’s taste. I don’t personally like descriptive openings because they can be a bit boring, but if done well, they can really catch a reader’s interest. They see that your writing’s quality is fantabulous, and so they crave more.
3) Tension: similar to mystery, this will encourage your readers to read on. They want to see the result of this tension, and tension can be created quite easily with the use of short sentences.
4) A strong character voice: some readers can simply have their interest captured by a unique, interesting narrator (especially effective in 1st person novels). For example, if the way a character speaks and views the world seems quirky, readers will want to know more about them. If you can portray that well in the very first paragraph, your readers will be hooked.
5) Foreshadowing: you have to be careful with this one because it can edge on melodramatic if you’re not careful. If done well though, foreshadowing can be extremely effective. By cleverly hinting at what will happen towards the end of the chapter, for example, your readers won’t be able to resist reading to the end, just so that they find out what the foreshadowing is leading to.
As well as the five examples I’ve given, there are plenty of other ways to create good impact with the first paragraph of your novel. If done subtly with good balance, you can even use all of them. Then you’ll really leave your readers craving more. Don’t get me wrong, you shouldn’t just shove all of this into an opening paragraph like some crazy-ass explosion of stuff for the sake of it, but don’t be afraid to mix some of these techniques together.
As for the rest of the chapter, what I said regarding the opening paragraph still strongly applies. In the end, it’s all well and good to create a first paragraph of awesomeness, but you need to try your best to keep it up. If you focus on mystery, keep up with that mystery throughout the whole chapter. If you focus on your character’s unique voice, don’t let him or her slide and just turn into your average Joe Bloggs. Ya get me, dawg?
Something else that is vitally important with opening chapters is to avoid cliches at all costs. Cliches are a risky business to begin with, but when you mix them with a first chapter, you may as well be flushing your head down the toilet. Think of it like this: an opening chapter is the first impression someone will get of your novel. We humans are cruel, assumption making creatures so if we spot a cliche once, we’ll decide in our minds that the rest of the novel is going to be overflowing with them. When a reader thinks they can predict the whole novel like that, it’s less likely they’ll want to read on. As a result, try your hardest not to throw in any cliches in your first chapter.
Other than that, it’s more or less each to their own because in the end, you know your writing strengths and weaknesses. Play to your strengths and work on your weaknesses. By doing that, you’ll have an awesome opening chapter in no time. Something else that will help is reading the opening chapter of books that are out there already. Take note on what those authors are doing: what they’re doing well, but also what they’re not doing so well. A published author doesn’t necessarily mean a great author. Either way, studying what’s out there will help mould a kick-ass first chapter. You’ll be storming the YWS Literary Spotlight in no time!