“My first chapter’s not that great, but wait until you get to chapter three.”
I’m not making that up. It’s from a real query letter my former agent received.
The clueless author looking for representation wasn’t going to grab an agent with that letter, and she wasn’t going to hook any readers with her story. Your first chapter is one of the most crucial in your book. Along with the ending, which better leave the reader longing for more of your work.
I’ve been discussing first chapters for several posts now. Let me wrap up with a few more points.
Don’t promise the reader something you’re not going to deliver. You can’t write a fantastic first scene that will have nothing to do with the rest of the story. (Like in those old James Bond movies where the opening was an action set piece with no connection to the rest of the movie.) The beginning must tie into what follows and start the character development and plot that continue throughout the story.
As I write my first few chapters, I’m getting to know my characters. I may think I understand their motivation, their traits and their conflicts, but I never truly get into their heads until I’ve written forty or fifty pages from their point of view. I may have ideas about what they’re like, but I can’t fully know them until they start reacting to the situations my plot creates.
And here’s a piece of good news about your first chapter and every chapter. What you write isn’t set in stone just because the words are on the screen or even printed out. You can always write in haste and edit later. My goal is often to “get it down” so I have something to work with. I can make improvements and new ideas when I’ve got a little distance from my first draft. I usually go back and rewrite my first chapter after I’ve written more of the book. Usually my second thoughts on both my character and plot are a significant part of the finished product.
We’re always told that tension and conflict keep the reader turning the pages, but don’t start with too high a level of tension. The example I like to use is from a suspense novel I picked up years ago. In the first chapter, a diplomat is kidnapped and tortured by terrorists. They castrated him, and as he bled to death, I decided that I didn’t want to read a book that began with quite that much threat. I was pretty sure the hero was going to fall into these guys’ hands, and I didn’t want to be around to worry about his emerging with his manhood intact.
Back to what you should accomplish with your own writing. While it’s important to polish your first few sentences to a burnished glow, its final impact should have equal weight.
Try to end the first chapter (and every following chapter) with a cliff-hanger, a tantalizing last line or couple of lines that will make the reader burn to discover what happens next.
In the Intrigue I’m writing now, Carrie’s Protector, the hero and heroine are hiding out from terrorists who plan to kill them. The first chapter ends with:
Down the hall, Wyatt could hear doors opening and slamming shut again. When the door to the office where they were hiding opened, every muscle in his body tensed. He saw a shadow flicker on the wall--the shadow of a man holding a gun. The guy stood still for a moment, then started across the tile floor toward their hiding place.
And here’s the ending of Sarah Zettel’s first chapter in Sword of the Deceiver:
And it was done. Natharie lifted her head and met her parents' eyes. Father looked sad, but Mother's eyes were wild. She looked as if she would jump to her feet and shout denial just as the priest had, but she did not move. She could not move. Natharie had cast the dice, and only the Awakened One now could see how they would land.
I think both of those make you want to find out what happens next.
Thanks for stopping by. What are your thoughts on first chapters? Do you have any good examples of ending with a cliff-hanger? What didn’t I cover in the discussion of first chapters that you’d like to hear about?
One commenter will win an autographed copy of one of my recent Harlequin Intrigues.
Copyright © 2012 Ruth Glick