Too often we writer types try to do too much in the opening chapter of our stories. Chapter One has to do a lot, but it doesn’t have to do everything. I learned most of this the hard way so benefit from my mistakes.
Here are my suggestions for your opening chapter:
1. Start the story as late as possible
2. Have a grabber opening
3. Make the reader care, usually via the MC
4. What are the stakes? What can be gained or lost?
5. End with a cliffhanger so we go to chapter 2
Need more info? Some details? Good idea. Let’s read on then, shall we?
1 Start the story as late as possible
Most authors bury the really interesting stuff a few paragraphs in, or worse, in chapter two or three. What! That’s crazy talk. Hit me with it fast. What’s the first interesting thing that happens in your story? Try to start there. It’s not easy to rearrange your own stuff so look at somebody else’s. Maybe a few somebody elses. Then have a look at yours. It’s hard, I know. Be strong.
2 Have a grabber opening
I like a “grabber” opening to a story and especially the opening chapter. Stories that hook a reader right away and keep the reader turning pages are stories that get read – and will receive comments like “I couldn’t put it down.” Of course, that’s not always possible… wait, yes it is. Like anything else, it takes practice. So, practice it! Like I said, most authors bury the really interesting stuff a few paragraphs in. At least don’t do that.
3 Make the reader care, usually via the MC
Because if readers don’t care… they don’t care. Do you voluntarily do stuff that you don’t want to do? Reading your book is not a job requirement. It’s supposed to be a fun diversion. How do we care about a character or a situation? Maybe by relating a shared experience or by having a character exhibit traits we admire and would like to emulate – and doing it in a human way, a way that touches the heart. Caring is emotional, not logical. A strong male figure that stops everything to talk to his daughter shows us something about him that we admire. And that we wish our dad would do, right? Right. A few things here and there and readers start to like this guy.
4 What are the stakes? What can be gained or lost?
We know a story’s supposed to have conflict. Tension. We need a story we have to keep reading to answer the question: What happens next??? A story where nothing bad happens is a DULL story, as in, nobody’s reading it. Put your character up a tree and throw rocks at them. Conflict. That’s good stuff. But it starts in chapter 1 by letting the reader know what is at risk.
5 End chapter ONE with a cliffhanger so we HAVE go to chapter TWO!
Just about anything can be a cliffhanger if you do it right, but bigger is usually better. Ask a question in chapter one that we have to go to chapter two to find the answer. Which we won’t do if we don’t care. Most authors should usually end their chapter a few lines or paragraphs before they actually end it. We writer types resolve a question in OUR mind, and we stop the chapter there – a big mistake. Leave it for chapter two to resolve it, and readers have to read on.
Oh, and chapter ONE’s job is NOT to do everything! The history of your made-up world and characters’ lives doesn’t go there. Dribble it in here and there as needed, but please don’t make us slog through it in chapter one.
Dan Alatorre is the author of several bestsellers and the sci-fi thriller The Navigators