“It just didn’t grab me,” will sound very familiar to anyone who has had a rejection from a literary agent. It is a bit of a stock phrase, but within it lies a great deal of truth. Your manuscript should grab and engage from the very beginning right through to the end and those opening chapters that you send out should be a taster of exactly that.
For a literary agent to consider your manuscript, it needs to fulfil certain criteria on their wish list including a compelling story, a unique voice, characters or a plot that resonates and excellent writing skills. When an agent picks up the opening chapters of your manuscript, they need to feel that this is the start of a journey they want to be part of.
Entice the literary agent on that journey by covering these six essential tips on making your opening chapters grab and engage from the very outset.
1. Establish the who, the what, the where and the when
Establishing the who, the what, the where and the when should not be through a full backstory, or lengthy scene setting description (Read our article about the effect of backstory and lengthy descriptions on plot here). We need to care about the protagonist but that won’t happen through lengthy exposition.
Establish the who, but make it about just that – let the reader know who the protagonist will be and who we should invest our emotions in. Don’t kill off any lead characters in the first chapter; a move that will leave any reader feel cheated that they had invested their time in this character. Avoid introducing too many characters at the beginning. There are some classic works of literature and successful contemporary fiction novels that do begin like this, and if you think you can pull it off, then go for it. If, on the other hand, you want to make it extra easy for your reader to get hooked, don’t give the reader too many names and faces to piece together as the story unfolds. Don’t leave the reader wondering which character he should invest in.
Set the atmosphere, the mood and the tone of the novel from the very outset. This is a good way of managing expectations for the reader. Give the reader a taste of what it is you ultimately want them to come away with. The first chapter has so much to achieve and that means it needs to include a little taste of everything to come.
The Where and The When
The opening of your novel should only include the essential information, everything else should be woven in carefully as the scenes unfold and as the action develops. Establishing time and place is fine. However, if it is an unusual setting then explain through action as the story goes on, allow more snippets to emerge as you paint the picture. Narrative at the beginning should particularly not be taken up with descriptions of this other universe.
2. Make us care about the protagonist
To keep reading, the reader needs to care about the protagonist but this doesn’t mean they have to know everything about them. Think about the opening chapters like the beginning of a relationship – you are attracted, you’d like to know more, but as with every relationship, it takes time. You start to care through resonance. The reader must feel as though they resonate with either situation or character to reach that point.
3. Set the scene for conflict
Set the scene for inner conflicts, high stakes and big consequences. Inner and external conflict help the reader identify with the protagonist, or with a situation. Infer or hint at internal conflict and have faith that your voice is strong enough for the reader to read between the lines.
It is easy to overwork internal conflict at the beginning of a novel – try not to lay it on too thickly. If the amount of conflict outweighs how much the reader feels for the protagonist, then it is a little too much to expect the reader to take on at this early stage. Allow the conflict to bubble away under the surface, but not take over. If there is too much internal conflict at this point, the plot will start to drag.
4. Hook and engage the reader with a powerful opening
There are several ways you can begin a book and all are hotly disputed as to which works the best. Lead with the one that sets the tone and fits your story and characters the best. There are a few openings you should avoid, for example lengthy descriptions, mundane and tedious details, the death of the main character and dream sequences to name just a few.
If you plan to begin with dialogue, make sure it is intriguing. When the reader asks questions, that is when they are engaged. When the reader starts to ask questions, they are no longer a passive observer.
Starting mid-action can be an explosive way to open a book – sometimes quite literally. This opening, however, may not necessarily fit your book, perhaps action in your novel is more about internal conflict and overcoming personal obstacles rather than car bombs and chases. It is worth considering, that if the reader isn’t aware of what is at stake, this opening could potentially seem empty and meaningless.
A mysterious opening line gets the reader asking questions and as soon as they are asking questions – they are engaged and invested. Atmosphere and mystery make for a killer combination and really set the tone for the novel.
5. Do the second chapter test
Usually when people write, the first chapter is all about getting warmed up. Admittedly the first chapter is probably the one that gets the most editing and the most drafting and redrafting, but it can be pedestrian in comparison to the second chapter where the writing and story has taken on a life of its own and begins to flow.
It sounds drastic, but try removing your first chapter and starting the book with your second chapter instead of your original first. Try swapping the two if you are nervous about losing it entirely. As you go through your original first chapter there will undoubtedly be information you find you don’t need and those essentials that you do need can be woven throughout the story.
Remember scene setting in the first chapter is more of a concept than a literal action – it doesn’t have to be told or set up front. Just include enough for the reader to start asking questions. But remember it’s all very well asking lots of questions, they do need to be answered as the story progresses.
6. Hint at things to come
To avoid your first chapter sounding flat and predictable include some small wins and losses. They don’t have to be hugely significant, as long as they contribute to character development or are moving the plot forward in some way (you can read more about keeping your plot moving forward in our article here) – this is how you will begin to create rhythm and variation in pace. A small build in tension and a small climax promises an interesting and varied journey and scenes that vary in intensity are much more likely to keep the reader engaged.