Nothing will draw your reader’s attention like a completely perfect first chapter. But complete and utter perfection is easier said than done. In fact, as the head editor of DEPub, I can say with authority that an author’s inability to construct a flawless first chapter is the biggest obstacle to getting published.
So, before we break things down, we need to ask ourselves, “What should the perfect opening do?” Well, it has to introduce the main character and the world in which your story takes place. It has to have a strong, unique hook, an original voice, a well-defined tone perfect for your intended readership, several references to classical literature that are obscure but not too obscure, something mysterious but also completely clear and understandable, a non-cisgender character, an abortion, a description of a sunset or wedding that makes your own personal memories of those experiences pale in comparison, a person dead or dying of a little known disease, fish, dark humor, nothing callous or insensitive, 2-15 words that aren’t English, and either a galactic spaceship battle or a grounded discussion about motherhood but preferably both.
Now that might sound easy, but once you start writing you’ll definitely notice some key elements are missing. So here are some tips, advice, suggestions, reminders and pointers on how to reduce redundancy and sharpen that first chapter into a useful weapon to plunge into heart of your reader.
Start in media res
With ever-decreasing attention spans, the readers of today need their dopamine fix fast. Recent studies show that readers will decide whether or not to read your book after the first three words. So you’ve got to whip out all your literary might, so to speak, and dangling it front of their face.
That’s why I suggest you start in the middle of your scene. Skip long introductions, skip backstories, skip exposition, skip character description, skip names, skip adverbs, skip nouns, skip punctuation. Start your book with a gunshot to the head. “Bang Bang Bang.” Start your book with cannibalism. “As far back as I can remember, I always wondered what people tasted like.” Start your book with a nonsensical string of expletives. “Fuckin’ piss-ass cocksuckin’ motherfucker.”
Don’t frontload the backstory
Be sparing with your reveals. It’s probably not good to painstakingly detail every year of your character’s life from birth to their present age. Don’t make the same mistake I did and write a hard-boiled crime thriller where the lead detective doesn’t reach puberty until page 46.
Maybe pick one or two key moments from your character’s past that relate to the events unfolding in your first chapter. If your character is eating a sandwich, maybe then would be the time to talk about their high school job as a school cafeteria bully. If your character is in the middle of a high-speed car chase, maybe you should talk about the advice their high school driving instructor gave them.
Opinion, opinion, opinion
Your story is driven by the voice you give your narrator. Original, radical opinions are maybe the best hook you can give your reader. Give your character a refreshing voice of reason, or a scornful voice of hatred.
Look for contrasts. Maybe your radical Islamic terrorist has decided to leave his past behind and open a bakery on the west side. Or maybe hint at a revelation like this: “I hated immigrants my whole life – until the day I realized I was one.”
When nothing else works, change your starting point
Start by asking yourself, “Why am I starting here?” Then ask yourself, “What if I started here?” Then, “No, how about here?” And “No, I think the second one was better. No, wait, which one was the second one?” And finally, “Why am I trying to write this stupid fucking book nobody’s going to read? Just give up you no talent piece of garbage.”
And once you get all that out of your system, try removing your first paragraph and see if that’s better. If that doesn’t work, make your second chapter your first. Then delete every sixth sentence and see what that looks like. Is your story starting to make much less sense and does it seem completely disjointed and nonsensical? If you’ve followed everything I said up until now, your answer should be “no.”
Finally, deliver the burgeoning conflict
There’s a saying I put in all my Powerpoint presentations when I teaching storytelling at the adult learning annex: “Your first chapter doesn’t have to bring the storm, but the storm should be visible on the horizon.” After all the applause, I go on to explain how this is the driving force of all fiction.
Be subtle. Instead of staring with a bank robbery, have the manager of bank security list every single vulnerability he’s noticed. Instead of starting with the death of a father, start with a dream sequence of a near-death experience of an uncle.
Remember, it’s important not to panic. This is a long process. So long as you don’t mind getting rejected for decades, there’s nothing to worry about. I hope this has been helpful.