7 Questions Guaranteed to Improve Your Opening Chapter

Does your opening feel lacklustre?  Just a bit off? It’s not the general subject matter.  It’s how you frame it.  Some writers can make you beg to read about paint drying, while airlines manage to turn mid-air disasters into something so boring you cannot be bothered to watch the safety demonstration.

Here are six questions you can run through to help you pick what’s missing:

1) Does the opening pose a dramatic problem?

Describing the furniture, even if it’s really, really interesting furniture, runs the risk of the reader tuning out. If your main character is trying to stop the furniture from being removed by a debt collector, you can describe the furniture and have a dramatic problem.

2) Is there a clear opening conflict or just a vague inner need?

‘Bob is trying to commit suicide’ is an opening conflict (the conflict is implied in the situation – calm, peaceful people tend not to be suicidal). Bob is sad (and wants to be happy) is an inner need. Inner needs can fuel whole books, as characters try various strategies to get those needs met, but they are not specific enough to provide a good entry point into the story. Test question: Is the only problem posed one solved by self-insight and long-term counselling, or are there more immediate solutions?  If you’re ringing the therapist, your conflict is too vague.

If I need to develop an inner need into a more specific conflict, I consider the following questions:

a) Why does my character feel this way? What
happened to get him/her to this feeling?

b) What particular solution to the problem is my character trying right now?

c) What will failure / success mean (for the character and others)?

I try to find answers to these questions that are interesting and specific, and that’s what triggers an opening conflict scenario. If my answers to these questions are a) ‘oh everything really’, b) ‘moping about and hoping for things to get better’, and c) ‘not much’, then I probably need to think harder.

3) Is the problem particularly revealing of my main character?

To convey the personality of a character, don’t just show a problem, show your character handling the problem.  They can handle it well.  They can handle it badly.  It doesn’t matter.  The way they handle the problem will connect the reader to who they are.  I promise you, John the Tax Accountant handles a bank error in his favour in a completely different way to John the Veteran Pensioner skimping and saving for his retirement, which is different again to John the Millionaire Playboy, and far removed from John the Seven Year Old Monopoly Champion.

4) Is the problem typical of the setting and tone of my story?

Think of a movie trailer.  It doesn’t have to grab everyone, but it has to grab the right people.  If it’s a trendy romcom, the trailer needs truckloads of Jimmy Choos.  If it’s the next Saving Private Ryan, someone better be holding their dying friend under a hail of bullets.

Books don’t have trailers.  (Or, at least, they rarely have trailers that anyone watches or with production values higher than a depressingly average Powerpoint presentation.  But that’s another topic.)

The point is: Your opening is your trailer.

It’s your sample on Amazon and it’s what people flick through at the bookstore when they’re browsing the shelves.

Tricky, huh?  Cause in an opening chapter, you don’t get to just cut together all the highlights of your novel to a killer soundtrack and flash up some selectively quoted reviews.  You have to construct a scene which gives the right impression.

Think of the opening to an Indiana Jones movie.  Indi isn’t sitting at home reading the newspaper, he’s in the middle of snatching some crazy relic from an ancient site guarded by questionable stereotypes of some non-Western culture.  Basically, the gist of an entire Indiana Jones movie is distilled into the opening scene of an Indiana Jones movie.  That’s what you’re aiming for.  But if that’s too tough, think about what your novel as a whole delivers: Is it romance?  Action?  Mystery?  Horror?  Family drama?  Comedy?  An exotic world?  Zen meditations on life?  Whatever it is, give us a glimpse of that in the opening.

5) So I should go with that dubious prologue?

No!  OMFG no.  No.  No.  No.

If you’re asking this question, you know in your heart that no matter how neatly that prologue reveals that backstory, opening with the History Of Everything That Came Before is an unpopular choice.  I’ve been there.  I’ve written that prologue.  I’ve cried with frustration when removing it.

Here is the golden rule of prologues: Does the prologue clearly set up the main character and a specific problem they have to solve?

A good sign that you can chance keeping a prologue opening is that the main character actually appears.  You may get away with having them appear as a baby (think Harry Potter), provided that the events of the prologue cause a specific problem for them in the novel, rather than just being something that happened once.  The main character in a previous incarnation worked for Robert Jordan in The Wheel of Time.

In some crime novels, it is acceptable to start with a prologue showing the crime being committed or discovered, without the main character making an appearance, but that is a particular quirk of that genre.  It works because the reader already understands what the dramatic problem is for the central character (can they solve the murder?) before that character appears.

In other words, if you look at the questions above, you have to nail both Questions 3 and 4 to get your opening to work.

6) Can I summarise the problem in an intriguing visual (or sensory) snapshot?

shutterstock_139382126This sounds like a bonus icing on the cake question, but it’s actually crucial.

Your opening is the doorway for the reader into your story.

The essence of fiction is that it’s a vicarious experience.  This is literally true.  When you watch someone eat chocolate you start salivating, and when you see someone slam their thumb in a door, you wince.  This is because your brain fires up in nearly the same way when you watch something happen to someone else as when it happens to you.  It’s thanks to mirror neurons if you’re getting technical.

If your writing does not offer a vicarious experience you have an essay (or maybe even a technical manual), but you don’t have fiction.  Only ignore this question if you are writing for a more experimental, literary audience, and have some good reason to leave your reader in a state of sensory deprivation.

In an opening we need to make the reader’s mirror neurons fire with a sensory experience that is inherently intriguing, even when briefly described.  If your opening problem is too complex, the interest of your opening will be opaque or buried in boring exposition.

This works:

Bob’s wants to kill himself.  Your snapshot is a man looping a noose around his neck, the rope rough against his throat.

This, not so much:

Bob wants to kill himself because the intergalactic counsel of the High Priests of Voldoon rejected his funding proposal for a military ultraweapon that can link wormholes, thereby creating the possibility of mining a unique substance only available in a distant galaxy which might enhance human consciousness and which Bob wants because it was the dream of his ex-lover whom he foolishly broke up with.

If your opening has intergalactic funding proposal problems, pick off one or two elements that capture the conflict without the backstory.  For example, you could have a devastated Bob tearing up paperwork (his rejection letter) in front of the ultra weapon.  But then have Bob’s actions speak for themselves by giving Bob an immediate problem to solve in that scene (eg. he flicks a switch and the ultra weapon starts to count down).  Don’t fall into the trap of having him potter about aimlessly while you tell us what the ultraweapon does, the structure of the Galactic Council, his memories of the ex.

7) Have I followed my character’s focus?

Every piece of writing starts with a single word, but how do you know which one to choose?

You know everything about your character.  You know what they had for lunch, the quarrel they had when they were five, and every sensation they’re experiencing in that moment.  What is most important to start with at that moment?

The answer is: whatever your character would focus on in that moment.

When your character enters the room, do they notice the priceless Egyptian vase in the corner, the picture of the family on the desk, or the annoying clicking sound made by the unbalanced fan?  Maybe they inventory the surveillance devices and escape routes?  What your character notices is illustrative (or should be illustrative) of who they are, their immediate goal, and what they value.  You don’t need lengthy explanations as to why.  Less is usually more when it comes to exposition and baiting your reader.

If your character keeps floating away to long flashbacks or explanations of context, check that your opening actually has a good dramatic problem (see Questions 1 and 2 above).  If you become overwhelmed trying to convey a more complex scenario, think about whether you should change the scenario.  Remember, galactic funding issues aside, a dinner party with 12 key characters in a cluttered room is your worst nightmare.

Describe exactly what your character notices, then describe what they notice next, and so on.  Do not describe anything they don’t notice.  It’s that simple.

Did these tips help you?  Do you have any strategies for writing a good opening chapter?  I’d love to hear your experiences in the comments below.

Image by wavebreakmedia on Shutterstock.

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