I finished six drafts of my novel before I realized that its opening doesn’t do its job as well as it should: it doesn’t immediately draw the reader in. It took me until earlier today (while discussing the matter with another writer) to realize that since I intend my novel to be commercial, it needs to hit the reader over the head with a hook as quickly as possible.
With that in mind, I went online and searched for tips on writing a black hole of a first chapter to suck people in. I wound up reading Chuck Wendig’s advice on his blog (warning: Wendig is awesomely foul-mouthed [I’m providing a “clean” translation of his advice below, in response to Ms. Hawkins’ comment]). I’ll be keeping his 25 suggestions in mind as I re-work the beginning of my manuscript.
I’m waiting for some beta readers to give me feed back, anyway; might as well beat the crap out of my first 15 pages ’til it’s awesome.
[UPDATE!] Here’s Wendig’s advice compressed and translated into nice-guy language for educational purposes (some of his advice may be lost in translation due to my failure to interpret or articulate, so please check out Wendig’s post if you don’t mind the cursing):
1. Chapter One is the hook of your book: if it’s not compelling, assume the reader will not read the rest.
2. Start with something exciting: “The first chapter is the beginning of the book but it’s not the beginning of the whole story.” The first chapter should start with something exciting, not the mundane beginnings of the protagonist(s).
3. Try to make the first line awesome: chapter one’s the hook for the book; sentence one is the hook for the chapter.
4. Each segment of the book should be treated as a hook for the next: “If they read to page 10, they’ll go to 20, if they read to 40, they’ll stay to page 80 . . . .”). Parcel out hooks accordingly.
5. The reader must care about the protagonist, though the protagonist doesn’t necessarily have to be “liked”; the reader must care about what happens to the character.
6. Use dialogue, it’s “the fastest way to [get] to know the character.”
7. “Begin the book with conflict . . . . Conflict . . . is interesting.”
8. “We need to know the stakes.” At least a hint of why the conflict matters.
9. Do not spend too much time on world building, laying out unnecessary information as to “the where” and the when.” [I think this means to avoid using chapter one as an information dump. Readers don’t like being dumped on.]
10. First impressions matter; use the first chapter to lay out the mood of your novel [Where the mood evolves and changes later in the novel, it’s fair to give a little taste of it in chapter one].
11. The “thesis” of your novel, the theme, must be present in the first chapter.
12. There should be a mini arc: a rise and fall of its own conflict. [Goes toward making the first chapter exciting.]
13. If you open with action, you must provide enough context for the reader to care about the character(s).
14. Give a bit of mystery to keep the reader’s interest.
15. “Eschew Exposition, Bypass Backstory.” Again, don’t use chapter one as an information dump. “Give us a reason to care about that stuff before you start droning on and on about it.”
16. While you should have some mystery throughout the novel, you need to unveil answers gradually as you go.
17. Stick a cliffhanger at the end of the first chapter.
18. “Keep it tight.” Chapter One should be short and sweet.
19. “Your voice in [chapter one] must be calm, confident, [and] assertive.” [But probably not if it’s in the first person with a narrator who’s not sure of his or herself.]
20. Prologues can work. However, “if your prologue is better used as the first chapter, then it’s not a prologue. It’s a first chapter.”
21. Read the first chapters of books you love and respect to see how they work.
22/23. The first chapter may be the hardest to write, but that’s normal, just get it done. Ultimately, it may get more attention (editing and rewriting), but that’s fine.
24. Chapter one “needs to be representative of the story,” it should include “the main character, the motive, the conflict, the theme, the setting, the time frame, mystery, movement, dialogue, [and chocolate cream] pie.”
25. Don’t be boring.