First chapters—and last chapters—are the hardest to write. Often, writers will return again and again to “tinker” with either or both of these chapters. It has been said that the first line sells the book, and the last line sells the next one. Therefore, a lot has to be accomplished within the first chapter to entice the reader to keep reading.
The essentials—create a compelling protagonist, establish a reader bond with the character, and rock this sympathetic character’s world. Let’s examine the building blocks of each of these ingredients.
I. Opening Lines
As in life, first impressions can make or break potential relationships. You want your reader to form a connection with your main character. Your first and primary job is to hook the reader/agent/editor. You get one chance. Don’t blow it. Don’t give them a reason to stop reading.
Elements of Great First Lines Include—
1. The name of the character Or the use of a pronoun in such an intriguing first line that the reader continues to read the 2nd line and the 3rd and the 4th and so on.
2. An illusion of story reality (setting and situation) that causes the reader to willingly suspend disbelief. The opener straps in the reader and prepares them to enjoy the story ride.
3. Something is about to happen—an interruption to their “normal” world. Cultivate a sense that the reader has arrived in the middle of an active situation.
Description bogs down the reader and slows the pace. Weave description in carefully. The character and the situation must be fluid and in motion. Don’t warm up the engine. Rev the storyline and put the character into gear immediately.
II. Character Bond
The character must be interesting and an engaging figure. The reader should identify with some characteristic of the protagonist’s personality or dilemma. Here’s how to ensure the reader’s continuing, emotional investment:
A. Sympathy Factor—
1. Undeserved hardship—Haven’t we all been there?
2. Character in jeopardy—Jumpstarts our sympathy.
3. The odds are against him/her—Everyone pulls for the underdog.
4. Vulnerability—Show the inner conflict. Contradictions in a character add intrigue to reader curiosity. Also, give a glimpse of the forces arrayed against the protagonist, which could potentially crush the character’s dreams and hopes.
B. Likeability Factor—
Likeable people do likeable things. They save the cat, pat the bunny—they care about others. They can be witty or interesting. Use deep POV to catapult reader into the emotions of the protagonist as the main character experiences these emotions.
Set the stage. The opening scene must paint an image in the mind of the reader—the who (introduce early given and surname of main character); the when; and the where. This opening image will set the tone of the reading experience—suspense, thriller, romance (by the lack and longing thereof), etc . . . Establish the year (contemporary or historical), time of day, season, and the location of your story. Show what is happening now. Not what happened in the past before the story curtain rises. Setting also equals mood, theme, time, and pace. Establish the setting right away with a quick general sense of where the action begins. Sprinkle in as many of the five senses as you can through the main character’s POV to bring the setting to vivid life.
A. Common Mistakes—Just the Facts, Jack.
Try highlighting all backstory and description. This visual reminder will enable you to see where you need to trim. Allow yourself 1-2 sentences of backstory in the first chapter—only enough to increase curiosity. Never satisfy. Leave them wanting more. Compel them to turn to Chapter 2 to find the answers to the questions Chapter 1 has raised. Reveal as little as possible in the beginning. Less is more. Reveal only what is necessary and when necessary until the reader is committed to finding out what happens next. Act first, explain later.
B. Remedy—Slice, Dice and Splice
1. Slice what is not vital. Dice backstory into bits. Splice what is needed to understand what is happening now. Blend in on a need-to-know basis—only when the reader needs to know it.
2. Shorten and sharpen. Presume all backstory is unnecessary. Pretend you will have to pay for every word.
3. Show relationships through action and dialogue. Instead of a description dump, show behavior, quirks, or habits that go beyond physical description. Aim for quality, not quantity, in description. Use action verbs. Search and replace verb configurations of “to be."
4. Examine the white space on the page. Did you utilize dialogue and action—lots of white space—to prevent readers from putting down the book? Or is the page cluttered with narrative telling?
Questions to ask your first chapter—
1. Did I hook the reader?
a. Will the reader care about the main character?
b. Is the main character likeable? Quirky or funny? Appealing? Sustainable?
2. Does the 1st chapter show the main character in the present action or dilemma of the story?
a. Was the reader pulled into the POV’s character and situation immediately?
b. Can the reader “see” the main character? Are their emotions clear? Does the reader have a picture of the character’s identity and what they need or want?
c. Did I introduce the potential opposition—who or what—which might prevent the main character from achieving what they long for?
3. Did I employ dialogue and action with lots of white space to provide more visually conducive reading experience?
4. Does the 1st chapter provoke new questions, stretching the hook, adding more interest, and thus reeling the reader into Chapter 2?
5. Does the opening scene achieve your purpose?
a. Whose POV is utilized?
b. Who is present in the scene?
c. Why is each one here? What does each character want?
d. Where is the scene?
e. When is the scene—time, day, season, year?
f. What happens?
g. How does the plot entice, hook and advance the story into Chapter 2?
h. How will this scene enhance character development?
Probably the best opening line I’ve ever written—the line readers tell me they find most memorable—came from my debut novel, Carolina Reckoning.
“Part of her wasn’t surprised by what she discovered in her husband’s coat pocket.”
Giveaway—Share your favorite opening line from a book for a chance to win one of 2 copies of Falling for the Single Dad.
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Finding Her Way Home
After fifteen years away, Dr. Caroline Duer is nervous about returning to her hometown. The veterinarian might be able to save stranded sea turtles, but she can't convince her dad of her good intentions. And when Caroline meets darling Izzie Clark, she encounters similar suspicion from the young girl's father. Former coast guard commander Weston Clark had his life upended by Izzie's mother. He won't go through the same pain again. But Izzie isn't the only one tumbling head over heels for the enigmatic Caroline. And if she can release the pain of the past, she just might be the missing piece Weston and his daughter have been searching for.
Lisa Carter's novel, Under a Turquoise Sky, won the 2015 Carol Award for Romantic Suspense. Her latest contemporary romance is Falling for the Single Dad. The author of seven romantic suspense novels and a Coast Guard series, Lisa enjoys traveling to romantic locales and researching her next exotic adventure. A native North Carolinian, she has strong opinions on barbecue and ACC basketball. She loves to hear from readers. http://www.lisacarterauthor.com