Wednesday, April 15, 2009

A Checklist for First Chapters



Debby Giusti

“What happened to my baby?”

Wealthy heiress Eve Townsend is close to death. But before she dies, she has to know: what happened to the daughter she gave up for adoption twenty-four years before? Did she inherit her mother’s life-threatening disease? Medical researcher Pete Worth is ready to find answers by tracking her down. And when he finally locates Meredith Lassiter, he finds her widowed, pregnant and on the run. The loan sharks who killed her husband want her dead…and Pete is the only one standing in their way.

First chapters make or break a book so start with an opening that grabs the reader.

Luckily, first lines do not have to be written first. Discern where the story’s going and how you want it to unfold. Launch the characters on their journey then go back and rework the opening.

Still stuck on the first line? Shorten, chop, cut. Pare down to a word or phrase. Turn the opening into a question or place it in quotes. Have the lead character whisper a warning, tell a secret, make a promise. Add action or introspection or a universal truth the protagonist will grapple with and eventually come to accept.

Too wordy? Kill prose that keeps the focus on the writing instead of the story. The opening should be straightforward, not a series of convoluted twists that confuse the reader or make her dizzy. Cut weak modifiers. Choose verbs that pack a punch.

Still not satisfied? Work on something else. Give your internal muse time to sift through your mental database. Often when you return to the opening, the perfect line will bubble up from the depths of your subconscious.

Start the story as the action begins…or even a tad bit later. Christopher Vogler, in THE HERO’S JOURNEY, writes about beginning in the protagonist’s ordinary world where he receives the call to adventure. Once committed, he crosses the first threshold and can’t turn back. The shorter the book, the faster the hero accepts the call and is propelled into the story.

Set the tone and pace and don’t detour off track. Keep descriptions true to the genre. A dark Victorian cottage bathed in shadow is quite different from a warm and inviting bungalow where children romp on the front porch.

Anchor the story in time and place as soon as possible. Again, don’t go overboard. A line or phrase will usually suffice.

Write the initial scene in the lead character’s point of view. Provide clues as to what drives the hero, why he must move forward or what’s at stake if he doesn’t succeed. Hint at his fatal flaw or greatest fear, his Achilles heel or the one facet of his personality he needs to keep hidden. Again less is more. Wet the reader’s appetite; don’t shove the information down her throat. Remember flawed characters are sympathetic characters. Everyone cheers for the underdog.

Introduce the various story arcs within the beginning pages. (What’s a story arc? Inspirational romantic suspense has three arcs or story threads: the romance, suspense and faith.) Where does the protagonist stand initially as far as his relationships with others? What obstacles or threats place him in danger? Does he believe in a higher power or has he turned his back on God?

In a romance, get the hero and heroine together as close to the beginning as possible. Capture their initial reactions and never make falling in love easy. The more unlikely the relationship, the more satisfying the happily ever after.

(Tip: If a female secondary character enters the story before the heroine, make the other woman unsympathetic so the reader knows she’s not the love interest. The converse holds true if a male is introduced before the hero.)

Tease the reader with a hint as to where the story’s going so she can accept or reject the invitation to tag along. Her decision depends on the clues provided in the first chapter. End with a hook that forces her to turn the next page and then another and another. Snag the reader at the beginning, and she’ll stay with you until the end.

Happy writing!

Wishing you abundant blessings,
Debby Giusti

Leave a comment and your email address to enter the drawing for my next Magnolia Medical story, PROTECTING HER CHILD, to be released May 12th. The winner will be announced on the weekend Seekerville blog.


  1. Well, I would offer coffee, but I'm still up (Tuesday night). So I'm the late/early bird. Or is that the early late bird?? :)

    Anyway, excellent post, Debby! Great points. And a nice checklist!! You write amazing openings in your books. We should all take note of what you're saying.


  2. I love the Medical genre with romance of course. I so would want to know what happened to my daughter and if she carried the same genes for the medical condition. She should know. I have a friend right now who is in her early 50's and has not been able to locate her birth mother. She knows nothing of her parents medical history and neither does her adoptive parents-- she was adopted at 12 days old.

  3. Missy...

    I've got your back. Brought the coffee. Doin' Dunkin' again, with flavor shots...

    Caramel, hazelnut, amaretto, vanilla and French vanilla.

    And if anyone wants a Captain Jack coffee, in honor of our favorite Barista, I've got rum and coconut.

    Flavoring, that is.

    And fruit in keeping with our pledge to eat lighter and exercise more.

    Go buy a dog, for heaven's sake!!! Great exercise machines and unconditional love. Also a cure for the 'blues' we talked about last week!

    Deb, great ideas. Sharp, succinct, strong. And a good point about not having to start with the killer opening...

    It can evolve later.

    Wonderful stuff.


  4. Hi Missy,
    Bet your were up late writing! Looking forward to our trip to the Heart of Dixie Readers Luncheon the first weekend in May.

  5. Hi Robynl,
    Glad you like medicals! So do I. Be sure to leave your email address to be entered into the drawing for my May release, PROTECTING HER CHILD.

  6. Hi Ruth,
    Thanks for opening the coffee bar! I've brought Sister Schubert Cinnamon Rolls and an orange glazed coffee cake.

    The centerpiece on the table is an arrangement of American flags in honor of Tax Day.

    It's also my eldest daughter's birthday so I'll have a birthday cake later in the day. Be sure to stop back this afternoon!

  7. Another great post, Debby! Now I'm going to have to go back over my first chapter--again.

    And thanks for the book! I won it in the last Seekers blog contest, and read it in one sitting. You would not let me put it down! It was fascinating to see how the lesson on suspense was played out in the book.

    Nice job!

  8. Hi Barbara,
    Thanks so much for your sweet words about my book! Glad you liked it.

    Have a great day!

    I'll be at a class this morning. Back at my computer this afternoon.

  9. Hi Lynn,
    Thanks for stopping by. Be sure to leave your email to be included in the drawing!

  10. hi Debby love the look of your new book please enter me also
    ausjenny at gmail dot com

  11. Wow, Deb, great post with LOTS of great info -- all of which you put to wonderful use in your nail-biting suspense stories! Can't wait to read Protecting Her Child!!


  12. Debby, you've given us a fantastic nutshell of a check list on how to grab and hold a reader! I'm copying and using it to double check the opening of my work in progress.

    I love the cover of Protecting Her Child and can't wait to read it!!!

    Thanks for the coffee and treats, Debby and Ruthy.


  13. Hi Ausjenny,
    You're in the drawing! Hope all is well in your part of the world.

  14. Hi Julie,
    So good to hear from you! I've been MIA with book deadlines and away from Seekerville for too long! It's nice to be back!

  15. Hey, Janet! How fun that we have books coming out the same month. Loved your interview with the artist who did your cover. So exciting to meet someone "behind the scenes." Beautiful cover and I know it will be another warm and wonderful Janet Dean read!

  16. Off to class! I'll bring the birthday cake and ice cream this afternoon. See you then!

  17. Such good points.

    I was intrigued about giving the characters fatal flaws and secrets.

    I don't want my darlings to suffer so this is a challenge.

  18. LOL! I don't know how many times I end up going back and redoing my opening paragraph! When I look back at the beginning of my journey till the end of the book, I always end up wondering why I initially thought that was such a great opening : )

    You have great openings, Debby. Suck me in right away!

    Thanks for the timely reminder and have a wonderful tax day!!!

  19. Great info, Debby. No wonder you always draw me right into your stories.

  20. Wow, great points, Debby!

    Openings are soooo hard for me. I really stress over them. I stress over the whole first 50 pages! It usually goes much faster after that.

  21. I've rewritten the beginning of my very first novel a bazillion times and still can't seem to get it right. I've chopped, cut, diced, and twisted, but still I pull my hair out.

    I'm going to trust that one day the perfect start will come to me. Thanks for these pointers, maybe they'll be the answer!

  22. Been thinking about openings. You mention anchoring the reader. Many different ways to do this, but when reading, I sometimes feel like they had to make a choice between anchoring and jumping into the action. Like when I'm four or five pages in and wondering, where is all this happening or what time of day is it? Things like that.

  23. Hi, Debby,
    What a great post! I am also going to make sure my opening for my WIP is a reader-grabber.Sometimes I forget that those first few seconds that the reader starts the book can make it or break it.

  24. I love the heroes journey stuff. I keep wanting to, one of these days, just use it straight through as a template for a book, see what I can do with it.
    Someone told me once that the original Star Wars is an almost perfectly rendered version of the Heroes Journey.

    And we all know how great Star Wars turned out. :)

    Looking forward to getting my hands on your book, Debby

  25. I'm back.

    Cake and ice cream for all in honor of my daughter's birthday!

    Happy Birthday, Liz! Love you, honey!

  26. Hi Ann,
    I love secrets and fatal flaws too!

    Harlan Coben -- one of my favorite suspense authors -- usually has a secret that plays through each of his books. TELL NO ONE was his breakout novel and started with a secret a husband, the protagonist, needed to tell his wife, but she was killed first. Because of that secret, Coben had me hooked from the beginning.

  27. Hi Audra,
    I rework my beginnings as well. Cut, paste, snip, tuck, rewrite completely, throw out, add back in ... well, you get the picture. Usually I'm still relooking the opening as I'm driving the manuscript to my local UPS shipping center.

  28. Hi Mindy,
    I love YOUR opening! You're in the drawing. Hope all's well in your part of the country!

  29. Hi Melanie,
    You mentioned the first 50 pages -- they're so important, aren't they? I alway remember what Donald Maass said in his WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL WORKBOOK: Don't include flashbacks in the first 50 pages! That's a hard rule to follow.

  30. Eileen,
    I feel your pain. Trying to get the perfect opening is hard. Maybe you've got it, but your critical "editor" eye is pushing you to work harder. Put the opening aside for a few days, maybe a week or so. Then relook what you've written. You may realize it shines!

  31. Adding to what I just wrote ...

    Do you find you're becoming too critical of your own writing? I think we hold ourselves to a very high standard. Sometimes that keeps us from moving forward.

  32. Patricia,
    You're right! If the opening isn't anchored, the reader can feel like she's rowing upstream without a paddle. Knowing time and place is so important.

    I once judged a contest and thought the manuscript was historical. Turned out to be a contempory romance with an opening scene set in a UK castle. I had a "What's going on?" moment when the heroine pulled out her cell phone.

  33. Linda,
    Yes, the first line or so makes the difference in whether a reader, editor or agent keeps reading.

    As a consumer, I always scan the opening page of a book before I buy it. A habit I can't seem to break. Last week, I put a book back on the shelf because I didn't like the direction the opening was taking.

  34. Hi Mary,
    I wrote my second manuscript following the Hero's Journey, although that story has never been published. Never will, in fact! But I learned a lot. Then I rewrote the manuscript three times. Learned even more. It still remains unpublished! :)

  35. Wow, what a checklist. I've been a bit worried about my opening line because it's longer than usual. Sometimes a longer line can work, right? (I know, I sound desperate)

  36. Great advice. And comforting, since I seem to be in the habit of starting everything in the middle. The book sounds great too.

  37. Jessica,
    Yes, longer works. I tend to write short so that's why I focused on cutting and paring down.

    No matter the length of the opening line, just ensure it grabs the reader.

  38. Sheila,
    You said you start in the middle. If you're still online, do tell more. Do you start your stories in the middle? Or the middle of the action? Or...?

    You grabbed me, Sheila, and I want to read more!

  39. I love your tips on the first line. The current WIP is the first one where the opening line came to me before all else. That being said, I wonder if I will keep it when I go back through the edits.

  40. sorry forgot my email

    yourstrulee at sasktel dot net

  41. Erica, you got the first line first? What a gift, huh?

    Did you then develop the story with that line in mind?

  42. I've got you in the drawing, Robynl.

  43. Sorry to be late today. Great post Debby, and as usual I am printing it out for use with my reference writing info.

  44. Hi Tina!
    Hope all's well. Thanks for stopping by!

  45. Debby, I did develop at least the hero's part after that first line...his inner struggle and motivation. I'm sure hoping that after I finish the book (it's about halfway done now) that the vision that was so crystal in that one line holds up.

  46. Debby,

    Would you be able to explain a little more about introducing a male secondary character before the male hero? You're saying it's okay for the reader to think he might the hero and then find out later he isn't?

    Once I had some judges confused in my contest entry about which male was the hero. The one guy did not have many traits of a hero so I hadn't thought it would be a problem. But I guess devoting a lot of space to a character, even if he's a negative character, implies it will be the hero?


    I'd love a copy of the book.

    cathy underscore shouse at yahoo dot com

  47. Erica,
    I've heard of song writers who start with one line. Interesting to hear how you did the same with your story. First lines are hard to write ... wish one would pop into my head for the next book! I need help from your Muse! :)

  48. Hi Cathy,
    Here's the rule, as I understand it: if it's the hero's story, the heroine should be the first female introduced. Likewise, if the story belongs to the heroine, the hero should be the first male the reader meets.

    But, there are always exceptions to the rule. In my current WIP, my female reporter heroine talks to her boss prior to meeting the hero. I described the editor as "balding and mid-fifties." Hopefully, the readers won't get sidetracked and think he could be the love interest.

    I've judged manuscripts where I didn't know who the hero was until much later into the story. Try to ensure the love interest is the first person who fits the hero mode in the story. Sometimes that means keeping a secondary character offstage until later in the chapter. Or it could mean the add-on character needs to be old and bald.

    Does that help?

  49. Forgot to mention, you're in the drawing, Cathy.