Welcome to week 48 of Anthony's series that aims to help you write a novel in a year. Read last week's post here
Breaking it down
- Focus on polishing your first chapter.
chapter is the window to a showroom, beckoning us with a display of shiny new cars
that promise adventure, an exquisite new dress in a shop window that hints at
romance, or a candy display at a market promising the best sugar high ever.
How do you
make sure you entice the reader in? How do you make that first critical chapter
a moment of seduction, one the reader will never forget? In short, how do you
get them hooked?
first line is your last chance to grab the reader.
‘My father took one
hundred and thirty-two minutes to die.’ This is the first line of Melina
Marchetta’s Young Adult novel On the
Jellicoe Road. It would be hard not
to read on from that first line, wouldn’t it?
I’ll make a
confession. For the last few nights, I’ve stared at my opening line. I’ve
rewritten it, deleted it, scratched out a previously discarded version – I’m
still not happy with it. I’m obsessed
with it – you could say I want too much from it. I want it to be perfect. Maybe that’s not a bad thing.
exception for every rule, I know, and I think we should be aware of that. The
first line should be simple – no more than 10 or 12 words. But they can be
complex too, if that’s the style of your novel. It can be surprising, tense,
absurd – but it should grip the reader.
The first line
can be a sledgehammer breaking its way into an action-packed narrative. It can
be a soft feather to tickle and entice the reader into a romance. However, you can try too hard sometimes. If you force
something dramatic and the result will come across as contrived.
In essence, I
think it’s about giving the reader a way into your story – it’s about picking
up a thread, opening a door for a glimpse inside and engaging the senses.
world on the first page.
When we’re writing our opening scene or chapter,
we’re building a bridge between the world outside of the covers of the book and
the fictional wonderland within. It’s like a child’s pop-up books – but you
have to build that cardboard castle with words.
You have to engage the reader’s senses, colour their imagination.
I find it’s
always best to start orientating the reader sooner rather than later – in other
words, point them towards north. For me, that’s about giving a sense of setting
— a fantasy kingdom or downtown Miami, it doesn’t matter, let us know the
care of the pictures in their mind. Next comes the style. This is where a lack
of confidence as a writer will trip you up. The voice of your story must come
through — from the tone to the theme, this must be the most consistent element throughout your
entire novel, so it’s important to get it pitch perfect. Whether you’re using a
first person narrator or a third-person viewpoint, we must trust the voice of
An unforgettable character or characters.
In Kiran Desai’s Man Book Prize-winning novel, The Inheritance of Loss, we open on a cold mist-shrouded scene in
the Himalayan mountains — and a house occupied by three characters: a girl
waiting for her tutor, an old man waiting for his tea, and a cook waiting for a
letter from his son in America.
the story unfolds at a slow pace, we’re introduced to the characters that hold
the story together – we identify with them, they start to come alive in our
imagination. That’s all the reader wants from the opening pages.
challenging or thought-provoking question.
One thing we tend to forget about readers is
that they love to believe they’re one step ahead of the story. Paradoxically,
they love to be proved wrong – they’re waiting for the trapdoor. Waiting for
you, as the author, to surprise them.
to happen in this story? What is this
character all about? How would I
react in that situation? These are
all questions that play at the corners of our minds when we’re reading. The
mistake we as writers make is that we try to answer all those questions in the
first chapter. Don’t.
If your reader
is a fish, you should be drawing them in with a beautiful lure, not blowing
them out the water with dynamite. On the
other side, you don’t want to give them just one sad worm at the end of your
hook. Balance is critical. It has to be just
last page that promises more.
The last page of
your chapter is not the most important page in your book – it’s not where you
make the sale. It’s cocktail hour, an hors d’oeuvre, rather than the raucous
party that’s waiting deeper in the book.
reason, and it’s a personal reason, I don’t like emphatic endings to chapter
one. I prefer a little mystery, something elliptical … something that will lead
me seamlessly into the next chapter. Of course, you can end chapter one with a
bang but just remember you only have another five bullets left in the chamber.
Use them sparingly.
Timelock — 3 to 4 hours
morning or afternoon refining your first chapter.
5 Quick Hacks
Pin it, quote it, believe it:
your opening line at least 10 times in 10 different ways. Experiment.
- Cut the
first two paragraphs from your opening chapter – and see if it doesn’t read
your character in twenty words or less. Try to distil the essence of him or her
into the first two pages.
- Lists as
many of the senses you use in the first few pages of your novel on a separate
piece of paper. Group them by smell,
taste, etc. Have you used enough? Too many?
- Cut the last two paragraphs of your chapter –
could it be used to open Chapter Two?