You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. —If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino
Ages ago, Alex, Allen and Alva arrived at Antibes, and Alva allowing all, allowing anyone, against Alex’s admonition, against Allen’s angry assertion: another African amusement . . . anyhow, as all argued, an awesome African army assembled and arduously advanced against an African anthill, assiduously annihilating ant after ant, and afterward, Alex astonishingly accuses Albert as also accepting Africa’s antipodal ant annexation. —Alphabetical Africa by Walter Abish
Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo. —A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
From your lead, the reader should be able to determine what the remainder of the experience will be. Besides creating mood, providing setting, and fanning curiosity in the first five pages, the author should establish expectations, accomplished by point of view, verb tense, style, and voice.
If the reader gets to page five and doesn’t understand something that is going to be revealed on page six—and doesn’t care enough to go on to page six, then we haven’t done our jobs.
Read the opening your most recent draft.
- Does your opening contain unnecessary explanation that could be deleted or replaced by vivid, concrete imagery?
- What reader expectations does your opening set up?
- Will these expectations be met in the story you plan to tell?
It doesn’t stop there, of course. The first five pages lead to the next five, and the first ten lead to the first twenty-five, and the first twenty-five lead to the first fifty.
- Hook readers with an opening line that surprises, intrigues, startles and makes them want to know more. Then show what’s at stake. Show that there’s something of value to be won or lost. We should see from the first paragraph, the first line, that this story will be riddled with conflict, that the protagonist has an enormous problem to solve.
- Don’t begin with background. Setup, by definition, is not story. Leave it out, and find another way. If you ever have more than two or three paragraphs of background strung together at a time—whether in dialogue or narrative—alarm bells should sound. Weave background in as you go, and do so as late as possible. Let us get to know this fascinating character as she deals with the trouble she’s in. A reader is only interested in knowing background after she already cares about the character.
- Give your characters weaknesses. A good novel is a story of transformation. You’re showing readers how your characters grow and change, how they overcome (or are overcome by) their problems. That means they need to have problems to begin with. If you introduce a loving husband, and by the end of the story, he is what he first appeared to be—a loving husband with no secrets, no unfulfilled dreams, no hidden passions—readers will feel let down by the story.
- Remember what readers want most: emotional impact. Readers of fiction don’t want to experience your novel from a distance. They want to laugh, cry, hope, worry. They want to get goosebumps when the detective in your mystery ventures into that dark alley. They want to sigh when the heroine kisses the hero in your contemporary romance. To achieve that, focus on the characters’ emotional reactions. Ask yourself, “How does she feel about this?” Then write in a manner that makes your readers feel those emotions.
- Choose dialogue over narrative. Editors—and readers—like books with lots of dialogue because they move faster. Narrative tends to slow things down and leads to telling instead of showing. Don’t tell the reader, “He was poor. He had an education. He had a good heart, etc.” Instead, show the character’s poverty in his clothes, his education in his speech, his heart in his actions.
- Nix the clichés. The hero of your thriller is a retired government agent called back for one last job…The protagonist in your chick lit novel is determined to quit smoking and lose ten pounds… If you’ve seen a character or story element before, readers have too.
- Polish your writing skills. If an editor sees passive voice, run-on sentences, or grammatical errors, she won’t read past the first page.
The first chapter serves as an emblem of the whole. It’s got to have a bit of everything. It needs to be representative of the story you’re telling—other chapters deeper in the fat layers and muscle tissue of the story may stray from this, but the first chapter can’t. It’s got to have all the key stuff: the main character, the motive, the conflict, the mood, the theme, the setting, the timeframe, mystery, movement, dialogue, pie. That’s why it’s so important—and so difficult—to get right. Because the first chapter, like the last chapter, must have it all. —Chuck Wendig
Literature is strewn with the wreckage of men who have minded beyond reason the opinions of others. —Virginia Woolf
Write while the heat is in you. … The writer who postpones the recording of his thoughts uses an iron which has cooled to burn a hole with. —Henry David Thoreau
The first chapter may see more attention—writing, editing, rewriting, and rewriting, and then rewriting some more—than any other chapter (outside maybe the last). That’s okay. Take the time to get it right. It’s also okay if the ‘Chapter One’ you end up with looks nothing like the ‘Chapter One’ you started with many moons before. —Chuck Wendig