Will Mr. Owl keep reading after chapter one? (source)
I love the extra ZING! NaNoWriMo adds to everything about writing this month. It seems appropriate to begin a Nano novel with an extra SHAZAAM! Doesn’t it?
I had the great pleasure of attending the Central Ohio Fiction Writer’s Conference earlier this month and met an amazing group of seasoned authors, editors and agents. My favorite topic covered that weekend was all about what they look for in an opening chapter. They emphasized the importance of chapter one about a thousand times saying, “In Chapter one you either hook the reader, or they put you down and walk away.”
No one wants to be THAT author. So, as you tear through your opening chapter this week, laying out the foundation to reel those readers into your world, keep these things in mind:
1. Chapter one needs a sense of immediacy. Don’t start with your character approaching a door to knock on. Start when the door pulls wide and so do your MC’s eyes. Don’t start with the labor pains. Start with the blaring scream of that final push. Make your reader think to themselves “My WORD, what have I gotten into here?” Those are the kind of thoughts that need answers, and only reading the next sentence, paragraph, page, chapter will answer them.
2. No info dumps. We know our characters entire life stories and it can be hard to separate what the reader needs to know and what they don’t. Remember: Most things can be implied, not stated and the rest can be left out. In other words, if the information isn’t necessary to propel your characters forward, forget about it. The reader only needs and wants to know what is immediately relevant. Cut the rest.
3. Engage the reader. The devil’s in the details, as they say. Draw the reader in with things everyone understands, relates too, knows. Add the little ticks and quirks and oddities that make the characters real. Chipped fingernail polish on an otherwise put together woman. No one’s perfect. A crooked nose on a handsome stranger. A lingering look at a desert case from a slim patron. All these details add vision to the reader and depth to the character. Why’s her polish chipped? Nail chewer or house cleaner? How’d such a distinguished man get a nose like that? Was he a college boxer? Was he in an accident? Is he not what he seems at all? How about the skinny person staring at the pie? Hungry? Eating disorder? Or a healthy concern about others eating more than they need?
4. Start your story on the cusp of change. Jump right into the story. Begin where the action begins. Make the most of every word and remember there’s a reader deciding at the end of every sentence, if they want to know more.
5. Create a strong sense of character from the outset. Unite the reader to the main character as early as possible. If he’s careful, show us he checks his shoes are tied twice before beginning his morning run. He scans the crossroad ahead for the last block before he arrives there. Point out the way he listens to the traffic and not music. He thinks there are too many useless accidents thanks to music. Then drop a piano on him. Who can’t relate to preparing tirelessly only to get blindsided?
6. Motivation must be present. A hint or sense of doom or trouble should be nestled in every paragraph. Absurdly long shadows from the crane carrying the piano make the man think it’s later in the day than he realized. However you do it, Make sure Change is in the air in Chapter one.
Applying these ideas to your opening chapter will not only grab a reader when the time comes to share your Nano-novel-of-awesome, but it will set up a foundation for intrigue throughout your manuscript and set a precedence for the character’s personality to keep showing through.
Do you have any tricks to hook the readers? Do you like to keep them on their toes?