I’ve been thinking a lot about opening chapters recently – my own and others. Inspired by the fact that I have been (re)writing an opening chapter myself, and two books I’ve tried to read lately had boring or confusing openings.
A first chapter has to do a hell of a lot of heavy lifting in your book. A reader won’t read chapter 2 if chapter 1 isn’t good. They might forgive a dodgy chapter 10 (though I wouldn’t recommend trying it!), but not a bad beginning.
Which means that, first and foremost, chapter 1 has to be interesting and exciting, quite apart from all the narrative requirements it must fulfil.
So, what does chapter 1 have to achieve? It has to set up the following:
- The world
- The characters
- (In a romance) Their relationship
- The conflict (Interpersonal, and external)
Now there are a number of ways to do this. Occasionally, you might have to cheat, and set up 3 of the 4 in chapter one, and the fourth in chapter 2. I did this for Guarding Sierra. The first chapter set up the world, the danger to Sierra, who she was and how she reacted to the situation, and how she intended to deal with it. What it didn’t do was introduce Blake, and his relationship with Sierra – and one of the first comments I got on the chapter after release was “where’s the hero?”
Hot tip: romance readers like their hero and heroine to meet almost immediately.
It’s a fair point, and definitely something to consider.
Anyway, let me expand on those 4 points above.
THE WORLD: My books are romantic suspense. That means that in my opening chapter, I have to let the reader know what they are in for, just in case the blurb and/or cover didn’t clue them in. You have to set up their expectations of what’s to come, and then proceed to meet those expectations.
So, for me, that means that I have to set up a suspense element in the opening chapter. Sometimes I do this immediately, by throwing the heroine into peril in the first few lines. Once the immediate danger has passed, I’ll slow down and build the relationships between the characters.
Other times, like with Christmas Tango, I’ll use the majority of the chapter to focus on the relationship between the two main characters, and wait until the end of the chapter to drop in the suspense element. If this is the case, I will try to come up with an opening line that gives the impression of danger—even if it is a misdirect. The opening line of Christmas Tango is: ‘Duncan tugged at the unfamiliar noose around his throat—also known as a bow tie.’ You can see how I tried to clue the reader in to the type of book it was, even though Duncan wasn’t in any immediate danger.
Additionally, each book is designed to stand alone, which means that I have to reintroduce Soldiering On and what they do very early on in each book.
So, basically an opening chapter is about setting up the genre expectations, setting, etc.
THE CHARACTERS: This means setting up the characters individually. Their goals, motivations, personalities, etc.
Now, in a romance, you usually have 2 dual protagonists. You most likely won’t get both of their POVs in the first chapter. It is essential that you get at least one of their POVs. And, if they meet, you can give hints as to what the other person is like, too.
The best ways to reveal character are
- Have the character talk to someone else
- Have them react to a situation
- Have them make a decision.
All of these things are excellent at showing who a character is, and can even be used in conjunction with each other! This doesn’t just apply to opening chapters, but throughout your book. If you want to reveal a new layer of a character, then these are some of the best ways to do it.
THE RELATIONSHIP: So, if the characters meet in the opening chapter (which, if you can manage, I would recommend) then you need to set up their future interactions, and their conflict.
Whatever it is that keeps them from their HEA until page 300, will have to be introduced the moment they meet. Or, at least, the seeds of it.
In the first chapter of Soldiering On, Duncan and Mandy meet briefly. She says something innocuous, and he interprets it the wrong way due to his own issues. He gets annoyed—at both her and himself—and is rude to her. This proceeds to happen a lot over the next few books. That opening moment set up their relationship, and the tone of their interactions ever after. Every time they’ve interacted after that moment has been informed by those first seconds. They have grown and evolved—and will continue to do so—but that first moment can never be undone.
THE CONFLICT: I’ve already kind of covered this, but it’s very important that there is conflict in your opening chapter. This can be internal—a character’s inner conflict, or a relationship conflict between the two leads—or external. External conflict is, of course, external forces at work on the characters.
You can have more than one kind of conflict. In fact, it might be best if you do. That’s what keeps the readers invested!
So, that’s all the elements you need to think about when writing (or editing) your opening chapter. I hope it helps! Next time, I think I’ll do a ‘what not to do’ post.
Just for fun, drop a comment below as to your favourite opening chapters you’ve read. What did they do right? I could use a good recommendation!