Being a Better Writer: That Opening Chapter

This post was originally written and posted June 30th, 2014, and has been touched up and reposted here for archival purposes.

So this weekend I discovered my legal theory on what constitutes an explosive of reasonable size is a lot shakier than I thought. Also, that brick walls aren’t nearly as sturdy as you’d think when you’re dealing with homemade fireworks.

Untrue, actually. None of what you just read up above actually happened. At least, not in that particular order, or to that extreme. But, it was a bit of an interesting opening, wasn’t it?

Good, because today, that’s what we’re going to talk about: Giving your work a strong opening chapter. Because let’s face it: Every story starts. Your challenge as a writer is to start things off in a way that not only grabs your reader’s attention and interest (you want them to keep reading, after all), but also gives them a good idea of what to expect in the chapters ahead.

As I thought about this topic (quite a few of you have asked me about it), I realized that at least, for me, the subject was fairly simple. Not because the act of creating the first chapter isn’t difficult, but because over the years I’ve built a pretty solid guideline for what an opening chapter should include, a guideline that starts right where at the beginning and then expands through the chapter, guiding my writing process. So today, I’m going to explain that process that I go through, what each of the steps are, and how they come together in then to build a cohesive first chapter that gets your reader right into the story and keeps them reading.

The Opening Line

The first thing you should think about, that I think about, is the opening line. The very first line of the story. You want that line to grab the reader, right from the get go. This is important. Because if the first line isn’t that great, or that attention grabbing, the likelihood that they’ll set your book down and go check another book goes way up. Not in every case; after all, some readers will give the first paragraph a go, but there’s a chunk of readers who are going to determine whether or not they continue looking at your book based on that first line. So you want it to be one that grabs the attention.

Now, there isn’t some magic bullet here. There is no “one line” that you could have written that would have grabbed everyone’s attention (well, unless you’re OJ and the opening line is “Guess what, I did it!” or something like that). This is because different readers are looking for different things, and based on what your book is about, the “attitude” that it carries, and what your audience is like, your opening line will go for different things. Plenty of books have tried to drag readers in with a clever line that has absolutely nothing to do with the book, only to have a large number of readers put the book down because the opening line had … well, nothing to do with anything else! Ideally, your opening line will not only be unique, eye-catching, or interesting, but will also set up a bit of the tone and mood of the book. Your reader should look at your opening line and not only be interested, but have a faint idea of what the rest of the book will deliver. This isn’t to say that the opening line should set up everything, but rather that the opening line should give your reader a sense of what to expect from the rest of the book.

For example, let’s look at the opening line I wrote for Dead Silver, which tries to set up a bit of the tone of the story while still being interesting. Dead Silver is an Urban Fantasy, Detective Noir mystery starring a somewhat reluctant main character, and right away I knew I wanted a bit of the character’s unease at what he was doing to come through, and I decided to go with a juxtaposition of what the main character was doing against what he was thinking in my opening line. A little bit of work led me to this:

I’m not an adventurer, I reminded myself as another sun-faded mileage marker flew by my Land Rover.

So right there, I had a contrast between what the character was saying and what he was doing, as well as the question for the reader of what the aforementioned adventure was.  For Dead Silver, this fit in with the rest of the book, where the character’s continued efforts to try and figure everything out continue to remain a challenge against his mental musings that he’s involved in something that’s way out of his league.

Compare that to this quote from Monster Hunter International, a book which is not shy at all about being an action-filled adventure novel. This opening line gives its readers a delicious taste of the irreverent humor and violence to come and … well, here. Read it:

On one otherwise normal Tuesday evening, I had the chance to live the American dream. I was able to throw my incompetent jackass of a boss from a fourteenth story window.

That’s a great opening line that pretty much sums up everything you can expect from the book in one sentence: grim, cynical humor, violence, and plenty of action. Do I think that it’s a successful opening line? You bet I do. I heard the line long before I read the book, and in fact had seen the book on store shelves but never read it. It was someone giving me that opening line that made the book spike to a “read” on my list.

Let’s look at two more examples, just to round things out. The first is from Timothy Zahn’s The Icarus Hunt, which is an absolutely amazing book. It draws the reader in with two things: the promise of immediate action and peril, and a subtle commentary on the mentality of our main character.

They were waiting as I stepped through the door into the taverno: three of them, preadult Yavanni, roughly the size of Brahma bulls, looming over me from both sides of the entryway.

Not only does this line draw the reader in with the promise that even if you don’t know what’s going on, you’re about to see some action, but it also gives the reader a bit of an idea of what to expect from the main character with his observations on the three Yavanni. If the reader finds that kind of observation interesting, then they’ll be satisfied by the rest of the book.

One more, this one from Mistborn. This one goes for just a straight “what?” query, something to make the reader want to continue reading.

Ash fell from the sky.

Pretty straightforward, and simple. In fact, it’s only five words. But it works because it offers something unusual, without any question that it is unusual. It’s not a question, but a statement, and that’s enough to make the reader question, and move further. Simple? Yes. Indicative of what’s to come? Well, only in its declaration of an unusual event as something plain.

So, first thing in your chapter, you’re going to want to have this opening line. Don’t be afraid to rework it, and just remember that you want it to do two things: be interesting, as to inspire the reader to continue, and if possible be somewhat indicative of the rest of the work in some way.

Seriously, don’t stress over this. Odds are that most of the time, just making it interesting will be enough, and the subtleties of it will evolve on their own. And, like I said, you can always come back later. If you want a bit more on the interesting part, then check out some blogs on story hooks.

The Opening Paragraphs

So, you’ve got your opening line. Now where do you go from there? Straight forward. Now that you have the reader’s interest, you need to focus on the next few paragraphs, which are going to be opening paragraphs that you’re going to use to set everything up.

How this goes can be up to you, and will probably depend on what sort of story you’re going to write, but the general rule of thumb I go by is that I need to start with my setting and my character while giving the first few crumbs of the plot. For instance, I’m going to go back to one of my own works here, and look at the first few paragraphs of Dead Silver (but not quote all of them, since they’re actually pretty long and have some heft).

After Dead Silver‘s opening line, I spend the next six paragraphs giving the reader a set-up of what’s going on. The reader learns why the narrator is sitting in a Land Rover, where he’s going, where he’s from, even what his goal is, all in a few simple telling paragraphs, where the information is disguised by the narrator’s own musings of what’s going on. For instance, we have these paragraphs that discuss why he’s telling himself that he’s not an adventurer:

I was reminding myself of that fact because at the moment, my life really did feel like an adventure. I was further from home than I’d ever been, driving through the deserts of the American Southwest on my way to some small city in the middle of southern New Mexico, all so I could help a friend of mine solve an animal control problem. I was tired, hungry, and I knew I smelled off after having been crammed in my vehicle for the last few days, but I could deal with it. It was no worse than camping in the woods of New England after all, except that the smell was a bit different.

But I wasn’t in my house in New England, or even in my backyard tending to my garden, coaxing the plants I had with my innate talents to make bigger and better produce. No, I was sitting in a Land Rover heading down the longest, straightest road I’d ever driven with a hot sun beating down around me. It was no wonder I felt like some sort of adventurer. For me, this was uncharted territory.

Notice the bits of information that were snuck in there? That’s the purpose of these opening paragraphs. Now that you have the reader’s interest, it’s time to give them some details to keep them interested and start laying the groundwork for your world. With each of the examples above, for instance, continued reading would start to lay the groundwork for the world, the plot, or some other part of the story.

Now, there’s a right way and a wrong way to go about this. The right way, the way you should strive to, is to give your reader the opening details that they absolutely need (Hawke traveling to New Mexico, ashfall being a common, everyday occurance, the business that MHI‘s main character worked at and how everyone hated their boss) without just dumping it on a reader, which is why I say “absolutely need.” Because a common trait of new writers is to simply dump anything and everything about the character and setting almost immediately. That’s the wrong way.

For instance, in The Icarus Hunt, the reader isn’t given the main characters name until they’re a few pages in and someone asks for it. Why? It’s important information, but it’s not needed until that moment. At the writer’s conference I attended earlier this year, one thing that was discussed was the tendency of new writers to try and give a reader everything at one go: they want you to have the main character’s name, physical description down to weight/height, and history all in those first two paragraphs.

Are these elements important? Well, some of them probably are. But are they important  now? Your challenge is to present the details that are needed first, as they’re needed, in a manner that flows during these first few paragraphs. Establish the most important details, the ones that the reader needs to know right away for the rest of the chapter needs to make sense, and let the rest trickle out as you write.

So, how do you do this? Depends on the story. If you made a promise of action in that opening line (such as MHI did), than your opening paragraphs will probably want to focus on laying the groundwork for that action taking place (which in that case was a few paragraphs that worked their way backwards, explaining how the character had gotten his job in the first place, and how he’s not surprised it all went downhill). The Icarus Hunt uses it’s opening paragraphs to follow up the main characters encounter with the trio of Yavanni by discussing how he gets past it—which also gives him a chance to show off his experience and skill and give the reader not just some action, but some highlights touching the skills of the character.

So what’s going to be important to your work? Well, that’s going to depend on what you write. It might be setting or scene. It could be a character. But those opening paragraphs should cover the most important details you’ll need for the rest of the first chapter, as well as supplement your opening line.

The Opening Chapter

Now that you have an opening line and the opening paragraphs are out of the way, it’s time to tackle the rest of the chapter by building on those paragraphs with foreshadowing and plot. You’ve got the readers interest (line), and you’ve given them the details they need to understand the basics of what’s going on (paragraphs), so now it’s time to write the rest of the chapter.

In effect, what you’re doing is expanding on what you’ve already laid down. The opening line set the tone and grabbed interest, but then from there you widened the scope of what the reader was “seeing” with some paragraphs. Now you’re going to widen things further and deliver more of what you set up with those paragraphs and line as well as begin to move into the story proper.

Now, don’t forget, part of the appeal of the first chapter is to keep the reader reading, which means that you need to give them reasons to continue past that chapter. So as you expand on whatever it is that your first chapter deals with, don’t neglect to drop some foreshadowing of events to come, or subtly hint to your reader that the rest of your book is going to deal with situations or elements of what you’re showing them here.

For example, back to the opening chapter of Dead Silver, we had an opening line where the main character reminded himself he was not an adventurer. From there, a few paragraphs move in to give the setting and a few tidbits you absolutely need about the character. Past that, the rest of the chapter builds on that with a flashback to the call that put him on the road in the first place and his own musings as the Rover comes closer to his destination. Included in this is the main character’s own expectations of how the trip will go—each one of which sounds interesting, but serves as a foreshadowing when one by one, they’re all subverted or go horribly wrong. Effectively, the first chapter introduces and sets up the reader’s expectations with a interesting premise, and then gleefully subverts every one of the “things will be normal,” foreshadowing while giving voice to almost every fear that the main character expresses in the opening.

Looking over at MHI or Mistborn, both of those chapters move on to expand on what’s given in the opening paragraphs and line. MHI takes its set-up and then expands into an insane, violent, and bloody battle of the main character against his werewolf boss, delivering by the end its promise of the boss flying from a fourteenth story window. While it’s fun, silly action, it also serves as an example of what to expect from the book as a whole: Lots of secret monsters, crazy combat, and gratuitous guns. Even though the next few chapters follow the recovery and recruitment of the main character, you have the archetype of the first chapter to let you know what’s coming.

Mistborn, on the other hand, expands on its presentation of an unusual world by having the chapter serve as a set-piece for the world. You get more on the ash falling from the sky, more on the culture, and the world itself, all unique and building itself as a backdrop to the world itself. And the first character you’re introduced in the opening paragraphs? Dead by the end of that chapter, as a foreshadowing of what’s coming.

The Final Line—Optional

This last one is optional. After all, if you have a solid opening chapter, you’re going to have the reader’s interest. And it’s hard to pull this one off successfully, so don’t make it a priority. But, if you can, it’s always fun to end an opening chapter with a tantalizing line that hints at the rest of the book. You’ve gotten them with the opening line, meted out the details they absolutely had to know first in the opening, and then foreshadowed things to come. A line at the end is just a bonus. You don’t need it, but it’s nice, as it can serve as a kicker for the rest of the book. A case of heavy foreshadowing or teasing, for example. Do you need one? Not really, so don’t tear yourself up about not having one if you can’t make one work.

So, that’s my method. I start with an opening line, then expand to the opening paragraphs, then expand to the chapter itself, along the way dolling out information as it’s needed to understand, raise interest, or foreshadow plot. And by the end, I’ve got an introductory chapter that starts simple and then widens in scope, drawing the reader into my work and easing them  (whether or not they’ve been dropped) into it; one that serves to naturally move into the story as a whole.

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