Beginnings are tough for a number of reasons, not least among them the fact that we’re wading blind into unknown territory, trembling with the knowledge that if we fail to be brilliant, readers won’t get past the first chapter.
How do we grip readers with can’t-look-away action, while still taking the time to establish character? How do we decide upon the perfect moment to open the scene? How do we balance just the right amount of information to keep from confusing readers, while at same time raising the kind of intriguing questions that make them want to read on?
I’ll admit to you that the beginning chapters of my books are inevitably rewritten more than any other part of the story. They’re tough to get right because they must offer so many elements in a seamless presentation that effortlessly entices and guides readers into the meat of the story. Look as we might, we won’t find any surefire method for making certain every beginning chapter of every book turns out just right every time. Writing is too organic an art form to be confined by checklists. I can’t give you the “10 guaranteed steps to a winning first chapter.” What I can do is highlight the three integral components found in almost every successful opening.
Character. Action. Setting.
Barnes and Noble editorial director Liz Scheier offers an anecdote (about a professor demanding active verbs) that sums up the necessity of these three elements. Scheier writes:
A professor of mine once posed it to me this way, thumping the podium for emphasis: “It’s not ‘World War II began’! It’s ‘Hitler. Invaded. Poland.’”
Scheier’s professor not only made a sturdy case for the active voice, he also offered a powerful beginning. Let’s take a closer look.
The professor’s example immediately gives us a human being (albeit a rather unsavory one) in whom we can invest our interest. Stories are about people. No people, no stories. We read because we want to cheer for larger-than-life heroes, learn about people different and not-so-different from ourselves, and vicariously experience adventures through the eyes of a character who lives in another time or place.
Authors can’t afford to put off introducing their characters. Whenever possible (and, with the exception of certain types of mysteries, it should almost always be possible), introduce the main character right away—in the first sentence even. The opening line of my medieval novel Behold the Dawn is “Marcus Annan had killed before.” Right away, readers know the character’s name, gender, and a hint about his personality and back-story.
Opening with generalities, historical or factual background information, or descriptions of the weather offers nothing to connect readers with the personalities who will inhabit your story. Readers aren’t likely to care about any of these elements—no matter how important they may be to the story—until you’ve given them a reason to care, via the characters.
Static characters are boring characters. A Hitler who sat around in his swank Berlin office and twiddled his thumbs might have made for a happier Europe, but he wouldn’t offer readers any reason to watch his actions. Don’t settle for opening the curtains to reveal a character standing in the middle of the stage with a name tag pinned to his shirt. When those curtains open, the character should be hard at work, preferably exhibiting himself in a characteristic moment.
At first glance, the opening of your story (particularly if it is the story of an ordinary person forced into extraordinary circumstances) might not seem to offer many opportunities for characteristic moments. For example, if your story’s inciting event is the hijacking of a subway on which your character is riding to work, you probably won’t find it practical to open with a scene showing your character working at the orphanage where he volunteers. So how are you supposed to force a characteristic moment into an event that is obviously far outside the character’s normal life?
Although it’s often handy when a characteristic moment is able to reflect on the physical nature of the protagonist’s world, you can force your character to act in ways just as powerful and revealing in even the most unusual of circumstances. The manner in which your character responds to the hijacking will tell readers much about him. Don’t just let him sit there in his seat. Make him do something. If bravery is the characteristic you want to emphasize, perhaps he challenges the hijacker. If you’re going for compassion, maybe he jumps up to help a wounded passenger. Or maybe you need to illustrate his cowardice, so you show him staggering to his knees with his briefcase over his head.
Whatever the circumstances you decide upon, make your character move. Show him in action, preferably an action that will knock over the first domino in the line of dominoes that constitute your plot.
Well-crafted settings not only ground the characters and their actions, they also shape the plot in important ways. Hitler had to have some place to invade. His actions couldn’t take place in a vacuum. It’s important to ground the opening of your story in a definitive setting for a number of reasons:
1) It immediately helps readers fill in their mental blanks. Instead of imagining your character roaming about a featureless white room, they’re able to place him within the defined boundaries of a specific place.
2) It puts the reader on the same page as the writer. Nothing frustrates readers more than a writer who forces them to fill in the blanks on their own, then rips the rug from under their feet by finally describing the setting as a much different place from what the reader imagined.
3) It sets the tone and defines the story. Where a story takes place defines it just as much as who it is about. What if Hitler had decided to invade Spain? His story would likely have turned out much differently.
Don’t bore readers with lengthy descriptions. For instance, in our example of the hijacked subway, you don’t need to spend paragraphs describing what the inside of the car looks like, since most readers will already be familiar with the generalities. Even if they don’t know what a subway car looks like, they won’t be interested in finding out until you’ve hooked them with the character and action. Spend your setting dollars wisely by using them to establish the setting and sketching only the vivid essentials, just enough to orientate the reader and bring the scene to life.
Once you’ve anchored your opening scene with these three essentials, you’ll have built a solid foundation that will allow you to manipulate and refine the specific requirements of your opening in a way sure to captivate readers.