Everyone wants a book that explodes off the page like a supernova. The best compliment any reader can give a book is to say they couldn’t put down. It’s not easy to create a bang, which is why too many books open with a few sad sparks and no fully formed fireworks. There are some tactics that work better than others for crafting a big opening. But are you using any of them? Answer these questions and find out if you’ve written a memorable first chapter or something dull and lifeless.
1. Did you start with action?
Make sure the characters are doing something from page one. This is not the place for passive tense, or an abundance of “to be” verbs. This is why everyone tells new writers to avoid all the cliché openings of alarm clocks, dreams, driving in a car, or answering the phone. All these types of openings lead to your characters doing something dull. Plus, they’re usually alone while they’re doing it. Instead try throwing the characters into the middle of something exciting. If the sun must rise in your opening pages, make sure it lights up an event worth seeing, like a battlefield, a train speeding right for them or some other dynamic event.
2. Is the character on page one a main character?
This might sound like a silly thing to have to mention, but it’s amazing how many books get this wrong. I read one the other day which opened on a relatively unimportant character who died a few pages later. This could work for a murder mystery, but in most cases it’s not helpful to introduce the reader to secondary character on the first page. Getting the reader vested in the protagonist, antagonist or the love interest helps get the story rolling faster.
3. Do you have a unique, thrilling or inviting setting?
Many readers want a book that takes them on an imaginary journey, so having a strong sense of place encourages these readers to keep reading. If the scenery is an ordinary location, find a way to make it the best ordinary setting in the world. Make sure you establish a clear connection between the surroundings and your characters. This task might call for a complementary connection, or a contrasting connection between the two. Wherever you select, surround the reader with sights, sounds and smells of that place.
4. Have you established a goal, stakes or a clear mission?
It’s okay if that first mission changes. In fact it’s better if what your protagonist wants develops in response to the events in the story. But they should want something. There is nothing worse than a story that aimlessly drifts into the first plot point. Make sure your characters have a purpose, even if that purpose is something mundane, they should be heading toward something.
5. Did you set the tone correctly?
A book should open in a way that lets the reader know what to expect from the next 200 plus pages. A thriller should have something dangerous or mysterious happen right away. A romance should give the reader a taste of the emotional stakes to come. The chances are you don’t want to blow up a city block on page one and then deliver 25 chapters of quiet, introspective musings. The opening of a book is a contract between the writer and the reader. The writer is promising the reader a certain type of experience. If you want to make sure the reader enjoys the experience, don’t pull a bait and switch. Make sure the opening matches the same level of action and emotional intensity as the rest of the book.
6. Bonus Point: Do you have a clear and compelling hook, without a data dump?
The back-story often overwhelms the first chapter. Every writer struggles with how much data they can slip in before it becomes too much. Don’t write a history lecture. Provide just enough detail to make the characters likeable, to establish an engaging voice, and to pose some questions for the reader to consider. Don’t get bogged down in the small stuff; there will be time for that later.
A first chapter that hits these six points has a great chance of keeping the reader turning the pages. Of course you many not need all six points to create a winner, but it sure couldn’t hurt.
How does your book stack up?