The Opening Chapter


David’s been talking about the opening line in his Back to Basics series, and he’s been saying some really sharp, on target things. It made me think about opening chapters and what they are supposed to do for a book and whether different books can have different kinds of first chapters.

First, let me say that I tend to focus a lot on my first lines also. If a reader picks up the book and looks it over and is interested enough to check the first page, I want something there that will drag him or her headlong into the story, no turning back. I want to get that reader to the cash register with my book in hand, and then I want that reader to ignore his or her to be read stack in favor of my book. So I work hard on those first lines.

But after a first line, or a first paragraph, you have to have the chapter, and that’s where things are a little bit fuzzier. Henry James argued that you should set up your characters and let the readers get to know them before jumping into the action, since action grows out of character. But modern readers aren’t all that patient with those sorts of books. They want to get into the action right away–en medias res means starting in the middle of the action. That’s pretty typical of contemporary fantasies.

In fact, with contemporary fantasies, my experience has been you need to have something going on on the very first page. You can’t wait. But traditional or epic fantasy is different. You can wait a little bit to ramp up. Or can you?

With traditional fantasy, i think there’s more worldbuilding that has to happen before your readers can fully understand the conflict or action. If you toss them in on the first page and they don’t understand the context, they may shrug, or may not feel the level of tension you want them to feel.

Let’s take a quick example from The Game of Thrones (TV series, not the books, since I don’t have my books at hand). I’m not going to do spoilers. In fact I’m picking on one thing that is rather minor in some ways.  Over the course of the first episodes are frequent and dire references to “winter’s coming.” And when it’s said, there’s always a somberness and a fear. But it’s not explained. So one has to ask, so what? What’s the big deal? Now on one level, we are given to understand that winter will be bad. That it is a terrible thing. But we don’t know why. We don’t know if it will bury everything under seventy feet of snow for six years, or if it will bring wraiths and wights from the north, or if it just means cold hardship for a few months until spring shows up.

We don’t know. And that’s a problem. We need the context. We need to know more about the Wall and the history of the place and the people. Otherwise we just don’t engage with it the way we’re supposed to. So let’s take that back to books. It’s the same thing. The openings of epic fantasy have to have action. They have to do world building. They have to set up characters and engage readers. They can take a little bit more time, but they still have to get going pretty quickly.

Writing it can be tricksy, because there is so much you have to do, and yet not confuse your readers. So first you pour it all out onto the page in a messy mass. Then you start crafting. One of your goals is to CUT. Cut everything that doesn’t have to be there to make sense of that scene, those characters and that world. Because it’s a new book and there’s so much going on, our first tendency is to overwhelm the reader with too much detail. So your first draft will have a lot of extraneous details. That doesn’t mean get rid of them altogether. Those details may need to be introduced later. But in the first chapter, only give what’s necessary for the reader to understand and engage in the moment.

So cut. Or as my editor once said, Prune Generously. Then go back and figure out what the reader needed to know that didn’t get put in there. Flesh those bits out. It all sounds much easier than it is, and for me, I don’t look at that first chapter again until I’m either well into the book, or finished. Because I usually don’t know what the first chapter needs entirely until I’m all the way through.  So don’t spend a lot of time polishing that chapter when you may end up tossing it all or rejiggering it or adding in a ton.

It’s not until the end of all this that I go back through and really look hard at that opening page and try to punch it up as much as possible in terms of action, or voice, or something to really engage readers. I try to launch questions that they need answers to–why is that person scared? Who is the dead body? Why did she hide from her brother? My experience is that reader tastes are changing and they demand more action more quickly than they used to. It used to be that you could wait a couple of chapters before really kicking up the action. I don’t think you can do that anymore. Readers aren’t that patient.

Opening pages and opening chapters are critical. Make sure yours is a good one, but remember that it can take awhile for it to take shape. Don’t get hung up on it, trying to make it perfect before you keep going. Just hold your nose and write until you get through the book and can see what that first chapter really needs.


14 comments to The Opening Chapter

  • Di, thanks for this. When I wrote about opening lines, I may have focused too much on those first few sentences and not (nearly) enough on the first chapter. Getting the tone of Chapter 1 right is so hard — something I struggle with in every book. I do believe that readers today want more action early on; perhaps more to the point, editors REALLY want it, and so we have to find that balance between engaging readers and overwhelming them. And I think you’re spot on — it happens for me in rewrites. Get something down early so that I can move on; but then attack it in revision.

  • You’re addressing one of my nightmares here. I think the most difficult balance to strike is in having just enough exposition so that the reader isn’t totally lost, but enough that goes unexplained to draw the reader along out of curiosity.

    The second-hardest is showing off at least some of the unique features of the world up-front to let the reader know he/she’s somewhere new, but not show too much right away or lose the tension in exposition.

  • This probably isn’t the place to say this, but as a reader, I lament the drive for “more action, more faster, more nower”. I like getting to know the characters a little – and learning to care for them – before being thrust into the main conflict. Which isn’t to say that I don’t want some conflict or something interesting from fairly early. But I don’t necessarily need it on page 1. What I do need is something interesting that draws me in and introduces me to the characters. And when conflicts crop up early, I don’t mind if they’re the little things: what the character wants, given the circumstances now extant in his/her life, I the reader knowing full well those circumstances are going to change (in a big way, especially if it’s epic fantasy) very soon. But, you know, not too soon.

    That said, I of course wholly agree that the first chapter has to strike the right tone and flavor, and has to be exciting and intriguing in its own way. I just don’t know that I want to see an epic battle or somesuch in the opening scenes (prologues aside; from a reader perspective I think the rules there are different).

  • David: I think that editors want it a lot, and I was just looking over the opening of my new thing I’m working on and it’s all backstory. Clearly it isn’t the first chapter. I have to do something more.

    LScribeHarris: It is tough. That’s one of the reason to dump it all on the page and go back and cut after you’ve written the book. That way you can see what you need to do.

    Stephen: I don’t disagree. I don’t mind at all taking some time to get into the world and characters first. But times seem to be changing and editors tend to want that action more front and center and faster.

  • While this is true in general, there are so many exceptions that it can leave the beginning writer scratching his/her head. I like to remind beginners that most of those exceptions come from established writers. After all, if Neil Gaiman opens his next book with two pages of describing the languid beauty of a hillside, we’ll probably all go along with it. Why? Because he’s Neil Gaiman. He’s earned our trust as readers, so we’ll let him take risks that we won’t let debut authors take. The other exceptions tend to be flukes or from the hands of writers that are talented beyond the professional norm.

  • Razziecat

    This is one thing that is difficult for me, too. My first few paragraphs are the spark that makes me want to keep going. I think I really need to embrace what Diana says about getting it all down and moving on, then going back after the first draft is done. I always want to go back and tinker, and that kills momentum.

    Stephen brings up a good point about prologues, though. I’d like to know what everyone here thinks about them: How do you know when it’s a good idea to do one?

  • @Razzie: I love prologues, but I know people who hate them. What I’ve come to decide is that a prologue is appropriate when there is: A) a significant difference in time between the events of the prologue and the body of the novel or B) a totally different POV character showcasing something important about the plot (think Harry Potter books 1, 4, 5, & 6).

    Beyond that, why not just make it chapter one? I’m guilty of non-chapter-one prologues that satisfy neither of the above, but I actually end up scrapping them. Every time.

  • Love prologues, so long as they’re relevant, and I don’t mind waiting for half the book to find out why.
    I don’t mind the slow action starters, specially in a series, so long as the story holds my attention and is well written.

  • I agree with you, Stephen. I definitely like getting a feel for the world and the characters before everyone leaps into action. I’m not a big fan of prologue, unless it directly leads to the initial actions of the main character (mysteries do that a lot). But maybe that’s just my linear thinking at work.

    As for opening scenes, I had no idea what to do with my novel until after I’d completed the first plot point. Once there, I knew what I wanted to do to set the stage. But when I first started, I didn’t worry about it. I just started writing the story at the earliest moment where a “clear vision” of my main character took shape in a scene.

    I like Diana’s advice on this subject. It helps takes the pressure off when you are trying to get started!

  • I’ve rewritten my opening chapter about five times now, and the funny thing is, I’ve decided to basically use the initial version.

    I was all paranoid about taking a significant risk in my first chapter…starting it out with a ‘vision’. Everyone says not to do that. It’ll turn readers off. Blah blah blah.

    With each rewrite, removing that portion, well, the rewrites just didn’t seem right. I liked the initial portion, it flowed into the rest of the story. Those opening paragraphs introduced the protagonist, introduced some of the setting, and gave just a touch of action and spookiness.

    Fortunately, I took a chance. I let some other authors take a look at it, acknowledging the risk and my concerns. For a majority…it worked. It wasn’t a problem. And I was unstuck….

    So I guess my takeaway…try a bunch of takes on the first chapter and have folk ‘beta test’ them (well, A/B testing would be more appropriate). Take what people like and build on it.

  • A few people have commented that they like to get to know the characters a bit before the action starts. I wonder if that is just a different view on what “action” entails in the first chapter.

    If you read ‘The Blade Itself’ by Joe Abercrombie, you’ll find the first page starts in the middle, or at the tag end, of a desperate fight for survival. Quite literally it is action from the word go. But, that isn’t surprising since it also introduces one of the main characters whose prime attribute, as recognised by others, is his ferocious battle skill and ability to get in fights. So is it action up front or is it character introduction and world building?

    In The Pawn of Prophecy by David Eddings, the first chapter is about Garion, the main character, as a child and his relationship with his “aunt”. It may seem that it is all character / world building, but it recounts the various little adventures and misadventures the young boy has on the farm. You could easily call that action up front.

    If you were to reread The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings you will find an older style of writing that heaps mountains of character and world building up front with almost no action at all. I tried reading LoTR recently and found myself quitting early on because of the very slow style. For me it seems the earlier you can get the action going, especially if it is character building and world exposing action, the better.

  • I love prologues, too, but I realized that these days, the trend is that whatever happens in them will be explored later in the book. Or if vital, they’ll become Chapter 1. Same thing with epilogues; they seem to have fallen out of favor and are usually the last chapter instead.

    I really like this post, Diana. From the very first draft it seems that nothing has evolved more than Chapter 1 for me. And then I have to make it flow well into Chapter 2 as well, and so on. You’re right, condensing seems to have been key.

  • Stuart: I agree there are exceptions. There always are. But I think that quick action is becoming the norm. Or has already.

    Razziecat: it’s really hard to keep going. Good luck. As for prologues, I only use one if I have to because so many readers report that they don’t read them. They skip right over them. But the one time I used one was because I needed to convey a scene and information that happened a long time ago, was incredibly pertinent, and there was no place anywhere in the book that made sense. There was no character who knew the info. Hence a prologue.

    D.R. Marvello: Thanks!

    Roxanne: taking a risk and sticking to your vision can be difficult. That’s one reason I try to keep pushing on so that I carry forward and keep trusting my writerly instincts. Too many early beta readers can really foul me up, but if that works for you, definitely do it.

    Scion: To some extent I think you’re right. But I think your post demonstrates that over time, the action level has ratcheted up more and more. But you say it exactly right: the earlier you can get action, character and world going, the better.

    Laura: Glad you like!

  • Since I mentioned prologues, I may as well chime in with my own thoughts on them. I’m not a fan of the old-style “history of the world” prologues; I do think that may have worked back in the day, but it’s not a viable technique anymore. But I do like prologues that are well-done. I basically subscribe to the rules LScribe Harris and widdershins mention: it has to be relevant (even if the relevance only becomes evident halfway through a story) and it has to either involve a significant separation of time and/or space or a separation of character (i.e. a character who is not going to be a viewpoint character for the body of the story, but whose viewpoint on this one event is important). Preferably both.