③ 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.
Even though 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.
④ A 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.
What’s going 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 enough.
⑤ A 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.
For this 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
Spend a morning or afternoon refining your first chapter.
5 Quick Hacks
- Rewrite 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 better.
- Describe 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?
Pin it, quote it, believe it:
‘Another word for talent is obsession.’ — Marion Dank Bauer
Look out for next week’s instalment of Write Your Novel In A Year!
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