Writer’s Corner: First Chapter Advice

“When it comes to selling your book, the most important words you’ll ever write are those on page one.” –Jodie Rhodes, President, Jodie Rhodes Literary Agency.

So no pressure then?

Tips to Writing the Perfect Beginning

So… with the turning of another new year and the beginning of another twelve months of frantic writing, inventive procrastination and trying to build a place for myself in Authordom, I thought now might be a good time to go back to the start and have a look at beginnings. A lot of us, right now, are embarking on a shiny new project. We are going to be sitting down in front of that daunting blank page and think “now what”. 

First sentences, paragraphs and even chapters have never been my forté and yet they are so important. Most people decide in the first three pages if they want to read a book. So it’s a vital part of the book to get absolutely right. Even the pros struggle.

I recently visited the writer’s museum in Edinburgh where they have a copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone on display covered in notes from JK herself. The day I was there, it was page one that was on show and with it a confession from the lady herself that she was never happy with the first chapter. It’s well-known that she revised it many, many times but even now, she says she gets people commenting on it and she’s not necessarily inclined to totally disagree with their comments. If even JK Rowling can’t get this right, what hope is there for the rest of us?

Actually, I take this as a bit of a confidence boost. Here is an author who wasn’t completely happy with her beginning and yet, I think it’s fair to say, the book did alright despite it…

She does however note that she is rather proud of her first line. Bringing me neatly to element one…

1. the ‘Hook’ AKA the first sentence

There was a forum thread on the Camp NaNoWriMo community where writers were posting their first sentences. I remember reading some brilliant ones (‘Being dead is not as fun as they promise’), some less brilliant ones (‘When I woke up it was dark’) and some downright bizarre ones (‘I woke up this morning as a cat’). I remember looking at mine (‘It had been the first day of Spring’) and thinking, “oh dear”.

There is a lot of talk of hooks. As far as I can work out, it’s a balancing act. Yes you want it to catch people, but you don’t want it to stand out. The hook has got to fit in with the rest of the feel of the book. There is no point having the most literarily genius sentence ever written, tagged on the front of a Hunger-Games style novel as it just wouldn’t fit. You read a lot of posts about how to write the perfect hook and they often include wonderful descriptive words such as “acerbic, intriguing, bizarre, enigmatic, epigrammatic, poetic, unexpected” and all those are great things to keep in mind but don’t overload. If your book is not poetic in style then don’t swamp your hook with it. If your book has a matter of fact tone to it, a bizarre hook would be just that… bizarre.

For example, the hook “Have you ever wondered if cows go to heaven?” definitely fills a lot of the tick boxes. And if it is followed with a novel with a bovine theme and underlying feeling of discussions of philosophy on heaven and death, great. If it is followed by a romantic chick-flick style novel that never mentions said cows again, it is what I refer to as ‘a headline grabber’.

A trick I picked up a few years ago that works really well for me is starting a paragraph earlier. So wherever I plan to start the novel, I start writing from a moment earlier. It takes the pressure off that first hook. And then I chop away the unnecessary dressing at the front and at least have a starting place from which I can craft a hook that will flow a little easier into the book.

Some excellent hooks include:

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” George Orwell (1984)

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Jane Austen. (Pride and Prejudice)

“A single line of blood trickles down the pale underside of her arm, a red seam on a white sleeve.” Kate Mosse (Labyrinth)

“When the doorbell rings at three in the morning, it’s never good news.” Anthony Horowitz (Stormbreaker)

A good general rule: try to include just a hint of trouble plus some kind of question/intrigue (advice from Les Edgerton, Hooked)

Some things to avoid include;

The weather. It’s cliché and overdone (that said, I’ve also seen books that use it excellently (as perhaps Orwell above), it’s just a bit of a taboo these days)

He/She woke up. Actions of the mundane hold no intrigue for the reader.

He/She looked in the mirror. It does work but it’s a bit of a cliché again. Such openings as “Rosie looked in the mirror and didn’t recognise the woman staring back at her” are a bit overused. It works in paragraph two or three but overuse has weakened it as an initial hook.

One final thing to note, the hook isn’t the be all and end all of your novel. If you can’t find one that fits, chances are your story doesn’t lend and so make your first paragraph your hook. Not all books have powerful hooks;

“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” JK Rowling (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone) – see what I did there…

And some books defy the rules;

“When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.” Suzanne Collins (The Hunger Games)… what was that they were saying about mundane activities…

2. the ‘Tone’

I hate books that start with an out-of-place action sequence just because it’s an exciting start. For example, someone tuning into Gossip Girl would not expect it to start with a car chase and proceeding gun battle. It doesn’t fit the style. The beginning of a book has to fit. The beginning has to be sharp and exciting but don’t force a sequence just to get that because it will feel contrived.

3. the ‘Moment’

Choosing where to start is one of those odd things. Sometimes it comes completely obviously and naturally, other times it is a real battle. A few questions to ask include:

Why now? What changes in this specific moment that makes it the beginning of a new story?

Why her/him? Why should your reader care about your characters and engage in their story? Choose a moment that shows your character off. Is she brave? Is he ruthless? Is she wise? Is he depressed? Show, don’t tell.

Why should I care? What about that beginning moment will persuade your readers to engage with your characters and be interested in reading their journey?

And things to avoid include:

The Humdrum. Reading about someone waking up in the morning is neither exciting nor gripping…. mostly. Confession, my latest novel, White As Snow, starts this exact way… twice. I’d like to think it works because the situation around her waking is anything but humdrum but I know it is a risk. Has it paid off? Answers on a postcard…

Long description. Personally, I disagree with this one. One of the things I love about old classics is that long beginning setting of the scene but in today’s commercial market this is looked down on as too slow. Descriptions of both characters and places in length are considered a bad choice for a beginning.

Pre-padding. Start with the action. Don’t describe the gun first. Start with the shot and work backwards.

4. the ‘Scene’

First chapters are about setting the scene and tone for a book. Herein I have some measure of disagreement with common instruction. I agree that first chapters laden with heavy description can be too slow but I think to say that it should be all pushed to a later chapter is too cut and dry. A sprinkler approach is the best one in my opinion. Don’t go for block paragraphs of description, but dribble it into the prose as you go along. Likewise with back story and exposition. Where you can, show, don’t tell. Readers want to be intrigued. Don’t hand it all to them in neat little packages but drip it across the dialogue and action, forcing them to work and thus get drawn into the world and the story.

I read some excellent advice that has stuck with me now and become my mantra when it comes to openings.

A lot of us like to think big. Like the first shot of a film, we love to start with that big wide pan shot and then slowly zoom in until we find a singular point of focus (as a general rule, our character). Set the scene, then find the action. First chapters should be viewed as the absolute opposite. Start with the smallest, tightest focus possible and slowly work out. Draw a reader straight to the centre of things and then slowly grow the world around them. Again, the prologue of Labyrinth by Kate Mosse, is an excellent working example of this style of opening.

First chapters are always going to be hard. They are those first impressions that will either make or break your book. And like everything else, they are subjective. The best advice I ever got was to get people reading. I send my first sentences, lines and chapters out to as many people as I can and ask them for their feedback. What tone are they expecting? What do they think of the character? Do they want to read more? What story are they expecting to read? As always, readers are a writer’s most powerful asset.