When you write or revise a novel, you must pay careful attention to the first chapter.
Opening Chapters of Novels MUST Accomplish These Goals
- Grab your readers attention. Something must grab the reader’s attention immediately. This can be an unusual use of language, a unique voice, a startling action, a bit of dialogue, an active description of setting (be careful on this one to keep it active!), or a mood that is set up. Get attention fast. You may only have three or four seconds before the reader closes your book and reaches for the next one.
- Ground the reader in the setting. The reader needs to know immediately WHEN and WHERE the story is taking place. Please use specifics here: Is this 1825 or 1977? Are we in Manitoba, Canada, or one of the Florida Keys? Specific sensory details should cue the reader to the exact location, even if you don’t specifically say where we are in the first couple paragraphs.
- Intrigue the reader with a character. Here’s a quick test of character. Read the first five pages of your manuscript, then stop. Turn over page five and on the back, write everything you know about your character, JUST FROM THOSE FIVE PAGES! Don’t cheat and throw in things you know as the author. It must be ON those five pages to count. If you can only list one or two things, revise. If you can list 8-10 things, you’re doing great! In between? Consider carefully if you might do even more to characterize better.
- Give the reader a puzzle to solve. The plot, the events of the novel, should give the reader an immediate puzzle to solve, something to worry about, something to read on to find out what happens next. It must start on page one! Not page 3 and certainly not page 25.
Other Best Practices for a Novel’s Opening Chapter
- Start with a scene. Unless you are definitely writing a character novel, you should start with a scene. There’s a beginning: A character goes into a situation with a goal. There’s a middle: the character encounters conflict and doesn’t get what s/he wants. There’s an end: Most scenes will end in a disaster and the character must find a new goal to send him/her into a new scene. If the character achieves his/her goal — then the story is over. No more conflict, no more story.
- Hold off on backstory. Please, no backstory in the first scene, first chapter. Some people suggest chapter two is the backstory; however, Donald Maass, in Writing the Breakout Novel, suggests waiting until page 100 for a flashback, or significant backstory. Keep the story grounded in the present time and in the present scene. When you do add backstory before page 100 keep it brief and keep it DIRECTLY tied to the immediate scene.
Strong first chapters are essential to great novels. Revise and rethink and re-envision the starting point of your story until you find the best place to begin.