You might not realize this now, but the opening chapter is the most important, most crucial, and most difficult part of writing your book. Beyond the 5-star reviews, NYT Bestseller lists, and the back-of-the-book synopses, readers go straight for the first page to get a taste of this tale and find whether it’s for them or not. People could be raving about a book, it could be #1 for weeks, but if the opener doesn’t click with a reader, it goes straight back to the shelf.
Before you think about that published book scenario, where avid readers discover your work, consider what it takes to even get an agent to give you a shot. If you don’t want to take the self-publishing route, you will never see your book on a shelf without the guidance of an excellent agent. When you start querying, you can’t jump in with your favorite scene or chapter; you need to submit the first few pages or your opener (depending on agency guidelines), and make them beg for more. Think of querying as your portal to the literary world. If you don’t get rejected based on your query, you might lose their interest with a wonky first chapter, so make sure you write it as intriguing as possible. Remember, agents know what consumers want, so if you can’t please them, your work might not be ready for the world.
Here are 5 tips, tricks, and possibilities for writing that epic opener:
Start where the action begins.
Open with your protagonist at the inciting incident or where the heart of the action is. Have them at the point where they’re about to strike. Put them in an uncomfortable situation they need to get out of. Make them flow or fight what they’re facing. Let your audience identify with the scenario and your protagonist’s dilemma. By doing this, you immediately draw your readers into the scene and have them invested to keep turning pages.
Cut down on backstory.
Don’t start with revealing your main character’s life story. Let that unravel throughout the book with action, description, and dialogue. Slowly ease it in. An example of starting with backstory is opening with a prologue. Prologues are tricky and you can only write them in rare situations. For many agents, discovering that you opened with a prologue will simply have them sigh with a hard pass. Another example is dumping everything about your main character from the start. We don’t need to know all of that right away. It’s mentally draining. This is where your chance to “show, don’t tell” shines bright.
Never start with waking up.
Going back to the first tip, start where the action is. Way too many stories open with the hero waking up in their boring, ordinary lives. This isn’t where your story starts. It starts where there is movement. Where your hero has to do “the thing.” Where we can sympathize with your hero enough to give a damn. Fast-forward through all the yawns and stretches, and get them moving.
Be careful starting with dialogue.
Opening with dialogue isn’t exactly the biggest no-no in writing your first chapter, but it could easily throw off your reader. By doing so, you don’t give your readers an idea of who’s talking. Maybe it’s a cyborg surfer goat. Maybe it’s a singing crocodile. Maybe she talks like she’s in a Disney animated film. There’s no way of knowing until you show us who’s talking.
Show the protagonist’s Ordinary Life.
I’ve mentioned The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler a few times in my previous posts, and I’m gonna say it here again. You need to show us what your protagonist’s Ordinary Life is like to set a mark on how she will develop throughout the story. Think of Belle from Beauty and the Beast; we see her unhappy with her provincial life, we know immediately how much she craves for adventure somewhere, and we see the villagers gossiping that she’s a funny girl (and not in a good way). From here, you draw your hero’s motivation to get out of their Ordinary Life and start the journey.
I hope these 5 tips, tricks, and possibilities help in making your opening as epic as it could be. But don’t fret if you’re just about to start with your first draft. First drafts are supposed to suck and only you could make them sparkle when you get to revising/editing. Now get off your butts and make that book happen!