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Tuesday, September 1, 2009

What makes a good opening?

I read a fabulous first chapter last week. I read it, and had to read the rest of the book. I couldn't put the silly thing down! What a pity I only had a few chapters to read. I was editing for a friend and realized that must be how an agent feels when they find a fantastic partial and have to read the full NOW!

As soon as I shot off an e-mail to my friend demanding to know when the next chapter would be prepped for editing (not soon enough was the answer) I sat down and started dissecting the opening chapter. I needed to know the mechanics behind the perfection.

Here's my short list of why this opening rocked:
1) A sharp opening.
--> The author didn't waste any time with back story or slow openings. She opened with dialog and action.

2) A visual cue in the opening.
--> The scene was well described within the first 100 words.

3) An emotional cue.
--> Within the first 250 words I have the emotional response of the MC and can start making a connection. Even better, the character is upset and the protective instinct kicks in. I want to help the MC. That means I want to like the MC. Within 250 words I have an emotional stake in a positive outcome of the book.

4) I laughed.
--> This is a complete personal preference but I like books, authors, and MCs with a sense of humor. The MC made me laugh, that means we can be friends.

5) A definite threat is established.
--> The author didn't waste her opening pages simply introducing someone. A visceral threat was presented. Reading on I realize this isn't the main threat but it is a threatening dark cloud and something the reader can easily relate to.

6) The stage is set for personal rivalry.
--> Again, this is a personal preference, but I liked that a second and third level of emotional distress were presented quickly. Part of this is the genre, it's a sci-fi romance - or a sci-fi book with romantic overtones - and it's good to know who the players are early.

7) The writing has a strong voice.
--> The only reason all of the above work is that the author has a strong voice. I get a feel for the personality of the MC and the tone of the book is set.

Going back to my own WIP I realize I'm not quite hitting all these points. I know I've missed #6. And #3 is weak. I'm working on that.

What about you?

What makes an opening chapter a good read for you?


  1. Yeah well, I happen to hate the first 40 pages of whatever I write on a consistent basis. Boo for me. (and I can't seem to get rid of them!)

  2. Nice post<:

    Are you talking about first chapters only? *offers a shiny smile* Because I think I safely nailed each one of those in both WIPS which I'm bopping back and forth between.

    The problem is that as I get deeper in the novel, each one of those integrals are a bit more difficult to maintain.

    I'd probably trade getting all them right in the first chapter for getting half of those integrals right throughout the entire work. Less revisal work in the end. :P

    What do I look for in the first chapter?

    1. A solid identifiable main character whom I can sympathize and identify with. <- Yes, I said identifyx2, but it's an important thing for me.

    2. For that main character to have a solid and humorous/sarcastic voice. It's the reason why I enjoy YA....

    Give me those 2 things and I'll be a bit more patient with a cliched or annoying plot. :P

  3. Well you pretty much took the words out of my mouth. I like this post and am going to pass it along;)

    And also, quick question here - am I the only one who thinks the first chapter is the hardest to write????

  4. For me, it's always strong voice and the immediate promise of depth to the plot.

    Yet, this has to be done without me hearing the author's voice in the background going, "be sure to tell them about the red cape, I worked hard on that"

  5. Great post. :)

    I think you nailed what draws me into a book, I'm just not sure as a writer I always succeed in capturing the elements this well. :)

    This is a great explanation of what works. Thanks for the head's up. :D

  6. That was a great post. It really made me think about what is working in the beginning of my own novel and what needs work. Thanx!