There are so many posts circulating from bloggers and agents concerning the opening chapter of a manuscript — cut the first twenty-five pages, start with conflict, no prologues, no tropes, no cliches…
If you’re ready to tear your hair out, then read on, because I’m about to cut the noise, and break the opening chapter into bite-size pieces…and hopefully shed some light on the ambiguous statements above. No more waffle, let’s just dive right in.
- The Opening Line.
If you Google ‘the opening line’, the internet will bring you to a barage of sites touting the ‘best’ book openers in the history of books eveeerrrrr! Some will bring you the infamous ‘Pride and Prejudice’ opener, some ‘The Lord of the Rings’, but no matter how different the examples, or the gaping publishing time-gap between these books, all of them have one thing in common:
They force the reader to have a reaction.
It was just another typical day in Laura’s world. Glancing in the rear-view mirror, she dabbed her freshly glossed lips — cherry number five, Walgreen’s finest — before running brisk fingers through her sun-kissed hair. Little did she know, but her bubble was about to burst.
It’s not a bad opening, but I have little to no reaction. I have no sense of who she is, where we are, or what’s going on. In other words…we didn’t open with conflict.
Let’s talk about conflict for a second. From my musings on social media, I’ve determined most writers don’t really understand what’s meant when an agent/publishing professional mentions ‘conflict’. They don’t actually mean open your manuscript in the middle of a battle, or start in the middle of your work. What they do mean, is begin with the catalyst. The moment/thing/person that shows us who your protagonist is, by observing their reaction to an interesting/bad/rough everyday situation. A moment that catapults them on their journey–in this case, their arc journey, not necessary the inciting incident (plot journey).
Begin where the protagonist has that jolting realization, and the reader will have a reaction/make a connection to the character.
Whoever just drove that brand new car — what the hell was it anyway? A Rolls? A Bentley? — into the back of Laura’s twenty year old VW bug, was about to lose a limb. Eyes narrowed, she squinted into the rear-view mirror.
“Fucking Bentley,” she murmured, subconsciously running a hand through her sun-kissed hair. A Bentley meant she should probably start massaging her neck, because a Bentley meant money.
Do you see the difference? Not only do we get the sense of who Laura is, but the reader will definitely have a reaction.
2. Character Development
Two rules here. Voice, and Progressive Showing (for more on Progressive Showing, check out my post on Show vs Tell: A Guide To Writing).
Your protagonist’s voice HAS to shine through in the first few paragraphs. If it doesn’t, you’ll get the good old: “I just didn’t connect with the protagonist” rejection.
Notes on voice:
Ask yourself: What would your character say, how would they say it, and did you convey that to the reader?
Incidentally, Progressive Showing is intimately tied to Voice. It’s the art of peppering your prose with imperative information without info-dumping.
Notes on Progressive Showing:
Ask yourself: If I were in this situation, would I really begin an inner monologue cataloging everything an 8th Grade bully said to me on the 15th of September of ‘x’ year?
No. You wouldn’t. Nine times out of ten, if you haven’t mastered the art of showing, the answer will be no. And that’s okay.
Laura couldn’t believe this moron had just crashed into her car. How the hell was she going to pay for the repairs? The rent was due on Friday, and Mr. Smith had told her time and again that if she was late, he’d evict her. And here was this smarmy ‘I-drive-a-Bentley’ asshole, looking hotter than an Arizona summer, who probably didn’t have to worry about things like ‘rent’ or ‘food’ or ‘car payments’.
One tailored leg followed the other as the driver unfolded himself from the plush leather depths of the Bentley. Laura’s brow furrowed. The son-of-a-bitch was taking his goddamn time, as if he had nowhere to be. As if Laura had nowhere to be. She’d have to cancel her date with Jon — or Jim…whatever — and volunteer for overtime if she wanted to fix her rust-bucket. A girl had to eat, and Mr. Smith would be banging down the door first thing Friday morning looking for rent. Taking a deep breath, she counted to ten.
I don’t know about you, but I’m getting a real sense of who Laura is in the second example. In fact…I think I like Laura. And I smell a hot, millionaire romcom here…maybe I should develop these examples…hmm…
3. A Page-Turning End.
It was suggested to me, many moons ago, that the opening chapter of a manuscript should end on a high note. In other words, the reader should be left a little breathless, and in want of a second chapter. (Really, all chapters should end like that, but it’s key for an opener.
End it on a question. End it on a mystery. But whatever you do, end it on an intake of breath.
The hot guy grinned, and Laura’s knees weakened.
“What did you say your name was?” he purred, gaze raking her from head to toe.
“Laura. Laura Kelly.”
“I’ll have my office call you when the insurance company comes through.”
And without a word, hot guy lazily returned to his Bentley, leaving Laura with a bad case of the ‘oh-my’s’, and an addled head. Because, if she had been with it, she would have realized that he hadn’t taken any of her information. Groaning, she banged her head on the steering wheel.
When he smiled, the bustling intersection fell away, emerald eyes crinkling as they lazily raked every inch of her.
“Laura. Laura Kelly.”
“Laura…Kelly,” he purred, testing her name on his tongue. Reaching into his perfect goddamn breast-pocket, he produced an ivory card, holding it between his fingers like a weathered Virginia Slim. “Here. I’ll have my office contact you when the insurance comes through. You can reach me here.”
She couldn’t help the feeling that she was doing something wrong. That taking that card meant she had somehow sealed a deal with the devil.
But as he disappeared into the confines of that ridiculously expensive car, Laura turned the card over…and her heart dropped in her chest.
No-one was going to believe her. Not her Mom, not her sister, and not her roommate, Kirsty.
“No fucking way,” she murmured.
So? Which is more compelling? (PS…I really am feeling this story LOL) For me, it’s the second. What’s on the card? Is it his name? Does she know him? Know OF him? Or did she really just seal a deal with the devil?
I hope this post cleared up a few of the finer points of the opening chapter. If not, my door is always open on Twitter, where I love receiving post suggestions! You can find me there, and I’ll be happy to answer as many questions as I can!
Until next time!