Beginnings are hard because there are so many elements to introduce. You have to consider character dynamics, point of view, pacing, world building, voice, narrative flow–and it’s incredibly hard to figure out how to balance all those aspects in a cohesive, clear, and engaging manner. While there’s no easy formula to crafting the perfect beginning, I wanted to share three questions that you can ask yourself as you go through your first chapter(s) to make sure that your beginning is as strong as it can be.
I want to thank Mara Fitzgerald (fellow WBPer and one of my favorite people to chat craft with!) for helping me organize my thoughts for this post. And make sure you check out her book BEYOND THE RUBY VEIL which has an incredibly compelling opening!
Who is this information for?
When the reader is given a lot of backstory/information about the world or the main character’s life, it’s a sign that the book might be starting too early. Of course, we need to get a sense of who they are before the inciting incident, but when we’re given too much of that up front, it starts to feel like nothing is happening while we wait for some external catalyst.
A helpful question to ask yourself is: Is this information for me or for the reader?
As writers, we often need to write our way through the story to figure out what we’re trying to say. I discover and decide things like the love interest’s backstory or a character’s relationship with another or a cool element of the world’s history while I’m writing. And it’s all stuff that I need to know in order to create a fully fleshed out story. But readers might not need a lot of that information until later on in the story (or maybe not at all!) So a big part of revising an opening chapter for me is figuring out what elements are just for me to know, and what elements outsiders need in order to understand what’s happening within that chapter. An element of your main character’s day or a detail about the magic system might be super important, but if a reader can still understand the first chapter without it, it might be a sign that you can move some of those details to later on in the book.
Another related question if you have a prologue is: What function is my prologue serving?
I’m not going to say that you will never need a prologue, but you have to ask yourself what role it’s playing. Your prologue should contain information that you can’t really work into the book in any other way and is very vital for a reader to know before the start of the book. If a reader can jump to the first chapter and make sense of the story without the prologue, it was likely unnecessary.
If you decide that your prologue is absolutely vital, remember to keep it as short as possible and only include the most crucial elements. A newspaper clipping summarizing a gruesome death that happened 30 years ago in the main character’s (potentially) haunted house, for example, could be a good prologue. A 10-page flashback about the day to day life of the family that lived in that house leading up to their deaths is less effective because that information can be woven into the narrative itself and revealed later.
What does my main character care about?
Sometimes, you have the opposite problem where the reader doesn’t have enough information. For example, let’s say a book starts with a fight scene. In theory this should be a great place to start since so many exciting things are happening. But that’s kind of the problem–when a reader is just thrown into a high intensity scene, they don’t have anything to anchor them in this new world. Without enough context about who the fighters are, what they’re fighting for, or why this fight matters to them, readers can’t form an attachment to the character and so they might just not care about what’s happening.
One way to address this is by asking yourself: What does the character care about in *this* scene?
Most stories begin by establishing the main character’s status quo or their life before the inciting incident. However, the inciting incident can’t be what gives your character a desire. It might change their desire or give them a new one all together, but your character still has to have something they care about and want even if the inciting incident never happens. And this is what’s important to them right now in the first chapter.
It might help to think of your first chapter almost as a self-contained story which has a goal, a motivation, a conflict, and a resolution. If you’ve given the character something that matters to them, putting that in peril automatically gives your character a reason to take some action. Going back to that fight scene example, let’s say your character cares most about getting into an elite magical academy because that’s where their parents studied and they want to live up to their family legacy. The loser of this fight is automatically denied entrance.
Now we have some context for why this fight matters and we’re invested in the outcome, which is both the motivation for the character as well as what’s at stake if they fail. The goal in this scene then is for the character to win. The conflict is the opponent as well as any self-doubt or flaws the character has. And the resolution is the outcome of the match. At the end of the chapter, you’ve established a lot about your character and the world they inhabit, as well as given us a reason to root for them and be invested in whatever they’re doing as we move onto their overarching goal/desire/problem of the book.
Does my main character have a strong opinion?
So you’ve cut the unnecessary details and given your character a strong motivation, but now how do you tie it all together to make that first chapter truly sing? This is where you want to rely on your character’s voice and personality–how their unique way of seeing and interacting with the world shapes everything around them.
If you’re not sure you’ve found the right voice or personality yet, stop and ask yourself: What is my character’s opinion on [insert element]?
Every character is going to have a different viewpoint on the same thing based on so many facets of their life, upbringing, characteristics, desires etc. In the first act of my debut, THE IVORY KEY, two characters look at a brightly lit fort and think totally different things. A rebel sees it as an ever present reminder of how the queens have failed their country while the other–who is the queen–sees it as a beacon lighting her way home. Both of those opinions are valid because of what they each care about not only within that scene, but in the book as a whole.
If a character loves something, the way they describe it (the word choice, the tone, the metaphors they use) will be a lot different than if they hate it. And not only that, their opinion is also going to dictate what they do. If a judgmental character learns of a friend’s choice to get back together with an ex, they might roll their eyes and make snide comments because their opinion is that their friend deserves better. However, they can also take it a step farther and internalize that as: “I need to help my friend escape a bad situation” and maybe their goal now is that they’re going to break their friend and love interest apart.
Opinions are magical (or at least that’s my opinion anyway!) They are truly one of the easiest ways to make sure that readers understand and feel fully immersed in the main character’s point of view. What a character has an opinion on as well as what that opinion is will tell us a lot about who they are and what they care about. And even better, opinions are great at pulling double duty–you can simultaneously establish a character’s voice while filling in other crucial elements like world building, character dynamics, and plot.
I hope these three questions can help you zero in on what is missing from your first chapters and help you craft a compelling beginning. Let me know in the comments if you have any other tips that help you with opening scenes or even some of your favorite first chapters!