Writing Beginnings: the first chapter of your novel
"Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again".
That's one of the most famous first sentences in the world, from the novel Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier,and it's a good illustration of the power of a good opening.
Your opening paragraph is the most important in the whole book - it's what draws your reader into the story. People often think that means it must be exciting, or shocking, action-packed or dramatic. Wrong!
Some good examples of good and bad beginnings - plus, of course, middles and ends as well!
Hooking the Reader
The job of an opening sentence is to leave the reader intrigued, curious to know more - like that wistful first sentence from Rebecca. The first few lines of your novel should make your reader ask a question which can only be answered by continuing to read.
Here are some more opening lines to illustrate my point:
"Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice". - Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude
"It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not." - Paul Auster, City of Glass (1985)
"It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen." - George Orwell, 1984 (1949)
All of these opening lines make you wonder. Why is Buendía facing a firing squad? Why did the phone ring and what was the "it" it started? Why were the clocks striking thirteen?
Of course, there are successful novels with opening lines that don't raise questions, but they're successful in spite of, not because of, their beginning. And their authors weren't having to market their own work - if you're self-publishing, you need to use all the weapons you can muster to catch your readers!
Anyway, there's more to it than just one sentence. It can be quite easy to come up with an intriguing first sentence, but if you satisfy the reader's curiosity too early, they'll put the book down again. You want to draw them further into the story, beyond page 2, so they have to buy the book to find out the rest.
If you can't find a way to create that curiosity over your first few pages, chances are you've started your story in the wrong place.
Cut the Backstory
A common mistake for newbie writers is to use their first chapter to set up the story.
Wrong! To keep your reader interested, you need to throw them into the story from page 1. If you start giving them a lot of background for a story they don't know yet, they'll lose interest.
There are plenty of techniques to fill the reader in on the background as you go along, so don't risk losing them before you even start! This is such a big topic I've created a separate article on backstory.
When a Prologue Works
In many books and courses about writing, you'll be told you should never use a prologue - precisely because so many new writers use the the prologue to dump all their backstory. In fact, it's perfectly OK to write a prologue if the story demands it - but it's the last place you should put back-story!
Your readers won't look at the headings when they start reading the book. They won't think, "Oh, this is just a Prologue, that's why it's boring - but I'm sure Chapter 1 will be interesting." If you're going to write a prologue, it must follow the same rules as a first chapter - it must grab the reader and lure them into your story.
A prologue picks a pivotal scene from either your backstory or your main story, and tells it in isolation. If you've tried everything to create an effective hook at the beginning of your "real' story, and failed, a prologue can be your solution.
For instance, in the first chapter of my upcoming novel, the heroine gets involved with Yuri, a smooth charmer who's really a Russian mafioso. The chapter is written from the heroine's point of view. As you'll know if you've read my Hub on Point of View, that means I can't reveal anything she doesn't know herself - so I have no way to let the reader know the man's true nature. So the chapter reads like a romantic encounter - nothing there to pique the reader's interest.
I've tried starting the novel later in the story, but it creates all kinds of problems which I can't resolve. Instead, I've added a prologue, set some years before the main story. Yuri's brother Peter is approached by a Mafioso, who tells him that Yuri is alive, and attempts to blackmail Peter into working for the Mafia too.
That hooks the reader in several ways. During the prologue, the reader is wondering why the two brothers were estranged, and whether Peter did what the Mafia wanted. When they get to chapter 1, they know Yuri isn't the wealthy businessman he appears - and they wonder if the heroine will get burnt.
The thing to remember is - never add a prologue lightly. Always try to find a way around it first.But if you've tried everything else, a prologue is nothing to be afraid of.
The main thing to remember is that your opening lines can make or break your novel, so it's worth investing the time to make them the best they can be!
This isn't a book about how to write a mystery - it's a book about how to prevent agents and publishers "murdering" your novel before it's born. It includes advice on "perilous prologues" and "hobbled hooks".
All text copyright Marisa Wright. Photo by Ed Yourdon
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