The success of a first chapter – grabbing the reader’s attention and keeping it - is dependent upon a number of things, all of which play a crucial part. It’s especially important if you are targeting agents and publishers, because then it’s not just the reader you have to impress.
First chapters can be daunting for some, not because they are necessarily hard – where do you start? – but because they are the foundation on which the entire novel will sit and some writers are not sure how to begin.
The name of the game, of course, is to entice the reader, to grab their interest and to maintain it from start to finish. What could be easier?
There are no hard and fast rules, but the advice is quite universal – for first chapters to be successful, they have to include certain elements, they must perform certain functions, or they just won’t work.
But before a writer commits one word to their story, they first need to establish a number of things in order to help make the entire process easier.
If you haven’t yet outlined or planned your story, consider it. Whether it’s a detailed breakdown or just a simple checklist, whatever your approach is, make sure you know your story, you know your characters, you know roughly where it will start and what it needs to achieve.
Decide Your POV and Tense
It’s surprising how many writers get halfway through a novel and have a meltdown because they’ve chosen the wrong POV. (This is why planning is always helpful and avoids such hair-pulling and time wasting).
Decide if the story is First Person present, first person past, third person present, third person past or third person multiple.
Once decided, do not switch POVs within the writing, otherwise the entire novel will fail. That doesn’t mean that novels can’t switch from third person to first person, because they can, but it takes practice and it needs to be done carefully, because whatever the POV, it has to be clear, seamless and never confusing.
Decide the Starting Point
Have a rough idea where the story will start; at what point in your main character’s life the story should begin. This helps to pinpoint the best moment to start. Often this start may be changed at editing stage, but in order to begin any story, it first has to have a starting point.
Aspects of your first chapter that must be established:-
Introduce the Main Character
Readers need to know whose story it is and why. If they don’t get to find out until chapter two, then any initial interest will be lost. The quicker you introduce the protagonist, the quicker the reader can establish a bond with him or her so that they will care what happens.
Don’t be tempted to introduce the character and then spend the next two pages describing what she looks like and detailing her backstory. That’s not necessary. A writer has an entire novel to drip feed the reader with all the information and description the reader needs. Throw the reader snippets. Be a bit stingy with detail. For now. It’s a great way to lure the reader. The less they know about someone, the more they want to find out.
Set the Tone
Why is this so important?
The tone of the story helps the reader to become immersed in the story. It tells the reader immediately what the story will involve, whether it’s a light romantic story, or a heavy, tension filled thriller.
If you begin your horror story with a happy party full of children laughing, it doesn’t help to establish the tone. Conversely, if a romantic novel opens with a grisly murder scene, it gives the reader the wrong message and reader will become confused by the tone of the story. That’s why it’s important to set the tone at the outset.
Establish a Main Theme
Any story can have multiple themes, but usually there is a strong main theme that is prevalent throughout the story. The opening chapter should hint at what this theme is by using visual prompts or subtle hints, dialogue, even brief visual descriptions that give the reader a clue of the underlying current.
Show the Main Character’s Goal
It’s the reason the main character is part of the story. He or she has a main goal, something that needs to be done to resolve the situation, which all relates to motivation, conflict and emotion.
He or she wants something, and somehow, by whatever means, he or she will achieve it, whatever the price.
You don’t have to go into huge detail on this. A few words, a sentence, a hint…that’s all that’s needed to show the reader where the opening chapter is taking place, what time frame it might occur or what period of history it is.
It’s another way of giving the reader information in a subtle way that helps them build up an entire picture, just from the opening chapter.
Conflict is the story’s lifeblood. Writers don’t have to go into huge detail on what the conflict is, otherwise the opening chapter can become burdened by exposition and backstory and pages of boring information that reader doesn’t yet need to know.
Never miss an opportunity to tease and lure the reader. Hint at the tension and conflict that bubbles beneath the surface. Show subtle clues to the emotions of the main character, the thoughts they have, because emotions are a brilliant way to see beneath the façade of a person’s character.
At the heart of conflict lies emotion and need. Someone wants or needs something and someone or something prevents them. That’s the simple structure of conflict.
In Part 2 we’ll look at other ways of making first chapters successful and how this can be achieved.
Making First Chapters Successful – Part 2