Friday, November 30, 2012

Writing a Strong Opening Chapter

We've all heard how important opening lines, opening pages, and opening scenes/chapters are. I think somewhere back in the beginning of my writing journey, I didn't believe it. I thought...nah, if I write a good book, it shouldn't matter if my first seven paragraphs are about the weather or have a little - okay, more than a little - back story.

But after writing several books, critiquing several books, reading tons of craft books and articles, entering contests, judging contests, querying and all that, I've realized that when "they" say those openings are important, "they" aren't kidding.

So what helps make strong opening pages?

A Hook

Yep, this one is first because it's probably one of the most important. An opening hook makes a reader/agent read on. That very first sentence or paragraph can say a lot. It sets the tone for the story. So be sure to write one that makes the reader sit up and take notice - and then read on. That's your big goal - to make the reader read on.

Sympathetic Characters

Readers, just like us, want to relate to our characters. So how do you do that?

Give your characters a goal, present an obstacle to that goal, give them a strong belief in that goal. With that foundation in mind, trying also giving them a fun or unique quirk, something that shows their vulnerability, and make sure you really get into their heads.

Various Writing Styles

Withing your first several pages, you're going to want to show you have a good grasp of various writing styles. Good dialogue, smooth description, varied sentence structure, and deep POV. If you can, try to include as much variety as possible so the reader doesn't get bored.

Be Succinct! Make Sense!

Don't take a lot of time to say what you can say in a short amount of time. In other words, brevity is good! You don't need an entire paragraph of description (yes, this will vary depending on genre) or a page of back story. Also, don't put in so much that the reader is confused. Stick to one conflict and make the reader want to know more.

Show Your Voice

This is going to give you that extra edge. This is what will differentiate a good manuscript from a great one. Giving the reader a sense of your voice will show them that you're confident about your story, and engage them to keep reading.

That's a lot to do in just a few pages, right? But sometimes that's all you have to show an agent, editor, or reader what you've got.

And don't forget, these are just guidelines to get you started. Whether you include a few or all of them, your number one goal is to get the reader to continue reading.

For me, writing that catchy hook is one of the hardest things to do in an opening. What's something that challenges you when writing opening pages?


Cindy is a Colorado native, living near the mountains with her husband and three beautiful daughters. She writes contemporary Christian romance, seeking to enrich lives with her stories of faith, love, and a touch of humor.

To learn more about Cindy, visit her at her personal blog,


Lindsay Harrel said...

It's so hard to figure out where exactly to start. You want to start with some sort of conflict or tension, BUT you also want to have time to show a bit of the character's life before the inciting incident. Guess it depends on the genre, though, because some books literally start with a murder or a character on the run, with the II already having happened.

Cindy R. Wilson said...

Lindsay, I agree! The opening is tough, and has to be a fine balance between character and plot. I think having a character on the run usually makes for an interesting beginning, though :) - maybe we should try it!

Loree Huebner said...

Important post!

The opening is always tough...but using your list as a guide is a good start.

It always takes a bit of time to work through the first few scenes to get it right and flowing.

Cindy R. Wilson said...

So true, Loree! It definitely takes time to get the first few scenes right, and always helps to have someone else take a look and see if the beginning is working.

Unknown said...

This is all so good, Cindy. In my last book, I figured out how to open the book by asking Susan May Warren, where should this story begin?? Hahaha...but yeah, all your tips are wonderful. I think avoiding tons of back story is important too.

Cindy R. Wilson said...

Melissa, I think it totally helps to sometimes have that outside party who's not so invested, help figure out the best place to begin. And avoid back story, for sure! Have a great weekend!

Unknown said...

Cindy, what a great post. I am beginning to believe this aspect of a book is the most difficult to perfect. :) Finding the right hook and opening sentence is one of my biggest challenges. You bring up pertinent things to consider. Thanks!

Joanne Sher said...

It's ALL hard. And this post is so very, VERY helpful.

Ruth Douthitt said...

Excellent tip!! I attended a conference where the speaker read the opening sentences of several best selling books.

Boy did that make me sit up and take notice! I realized how important that opening hook really is.

Thanks for these reminders. It is hard to make that opening chapter grab your audience but it's worth the trouble.

Gabrielle Meyer said...

Great points, Cindy. I totally agree, as a reader I want to be hooked immediately. If I'm not, it will be really hard for me to keep reading. My challenge has been getting inside the character's head in those first few pages. What I found helpful is to go back when I'm somewhere in the middle of my book and rewrite the opening scene - after I've spent some time with the character and know them better.

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