Elements of a KICKASS opening chapter

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The opening chapter of your book is what makes or breaks it. The rest of the story might be solid gold but if a reader or an agent gives up before they’ve made it through the first twenty or so pages then they’ll just never know… And when you’re sending out sample pages to literary agents your opening chapter may well be the hinge upon which your writing career hangs. So you’d better get it right, right?

So. If an agent receives up to 100 submissions each week, why should YOURS makes them stop sifting through the slush pile? What’s that magic ingredient that will make them request the full manuscript, immediately snap up your book, sell it for a gazillion pounds to a top publisher and make you famous beyond your wildest dreams?

A lot of emphasis is (deservedly) placed on the cover letter or query that a writer sends out to agents, but that’s just the initial hook. Similarly, your synopsis is another very important element of your submissions toolkit, but essentially it’s just there to fill in the gaps of your query and sample pages. Nope, arguably the most important aspect of your submission is the slick, polished, killer opening chapter that makes them yell, “Hot diggety damn I need to read this whole frickin’ book right now!” (Because that’s how all agents talk, by the way, get used to it.)

HARSH TRUTH KLAXON:

Look, lit agents develop pretty sharp instincts when it comes to making decisions about submissions – I mean, it’s their job. Lit agent (and mighty Query Shark) Janet Reid says she can tell if a book is worth pursuing within the first 3-5 pages. Yep, you read that right. THREE TO FIVE PAGES. That means you need to grab that agent’s attention within the first couple of thousand words. So you’d better make sure your sample pages are up to scratch…

What makes an amazing opening chapter (or three)?

Now, if you’ve reached the point of submitting your book to agents, you should have already gone through aaaaall the rigmarole of editing and redrafting and editing some more and fine-tuning your novel to the nth degree. Right? RIGHT? Right.

So your opening chapters should already by kickass. Right? Riiiiight…? Hmm.

If you’re at all uncertain, now’s the time to make sure.

For some literary insight, here’s lit agent Samar Hammam from Rocking Chair Books on what she looks for in sample pages:

“Don’t expect the agent to sift through the first fifty pages before they get to the good stuff. The opening pages of your book are very important. If the opening is strong, it is a motivation to persevere and give more thought to how it might be edited, worked on, and then sold. […] At the end of the day, it’s what’s inside a book that makes it work – the book itself. Does it move the reader? Can they sit on a rocking chair with a knee rug and feel like they’re absolutely in the most thrilling moments of their life? Are they in perilous danger of sitting on the tube all the way to Cockfosters just so they don’t have to stop reading? Will they tell everyone about it?”

The opening chapter wishlist:

Your opening chapters need to do several things in a pretty short space of time:

#1: Demonstrate a strong writing voice

I’ve lost count of the times I’ve read the phrase ‘strong, original voices’ on agent wishlists. But it’s true – any agent worth their salt is hoping to discover a new, unique writing voice. Or at the very least a writer who knows what they’re doing. Make sure your opening chapters are well-written (duh) and clearly demonstrate the tone and style of the book right away. Show ‘em why YOU are the ONLY writer who could possible tell this story.

# 2: Introduce unforgettable characters

The most powerful element of any book should be its characterisation. Isn’t that why we love reading? For the exploration of humanity? Introduce us to a character whose journey we can’t help but want to follow across another 70,000 words. Show us who they are, what they want, and what’s standing in their way. Make us root for them right from the off. Give them a ‘save the cat’ moment within the first three chapters. Show us why they’re unique and interesting and flawed and multi-dimensional and MAKE US CARE.

Incidentally, Emma Healey (award-winning author of Elizabeth is Missing) has an interesting theory that dialogue plays a huge part in introducing characters – have a quick looksee here:

#3: Establish the ‘world’ of the book

By this we don’t mean spend your first 10,000 words describing every last detail of the landscape or the floor plan of your protagonist’s flat or the intricate dynastic history of your fantasy world. Set up the atmosphere and setting of your book as quickly as you can and then GET THE FRICK ON WITH THE STORY. Exposition is necessary, of course, but it should integrate seamlessly and almost imperceptibly with your plot – any book that begins with a great big infodump (lookin’ at you, Tolkien), needs a severe edit before sending out.

#4: Throw the reader headlong into the story:

If we get to the end of your first three chapters and nothing has actually happened then that’s a genuine cause for concern. By this point we should know who your protagonist is, what they want, and what sort of struggle they face.

Image of text on a yellow background: character + goal + conflict = plot

By this point, your protag should have been flung arse-first into a brand spanking new adventure. And if you haven’t hit that ‘inciting incident’ by the time the agent finishes reading, they’ll probably be wondering when you’re actually gonna get on with the story…

ENOUGH THEORY! Let’s see some examples:

Okay, money-where-mouth-is time*. Below are the first pages of some of our fave books. Have a read through and check to see if each of them contains those requisite elements:

  1. Stellar writing
  2. Intriguing characters
  3. Interesting settings/situations
  4. Some sort of conflict

(*Think we’re being harsh to ask for all these things within the first page? Remember: agents are likely to make a judgement on your sample pages within the first 3-5 pages. SO YOU HAVE TO MAKE THEM COUNT.)

The Book Thief  by Marcus Zusak

Image depicting the opening page of The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak. 

First the colours. 
Then the humans. 
That's usually how I see things. 
Or at least, how I try. 

Here is a small fact: you are going to die. 

I am in all truthfulness attempting to be cheerful about this whole topic, though most people find themselves hindered in believing me, no matter my protestations. Please, trust me. I most definitely can be cheerful. I can be amiable. Agreeable. Affable. And that's only the As. Just don't ask me to be nice. Nice has nothing to do with me. 

Reaction to the aforementioned fact: Does this worry you? I urge you - don't be afraid. I'm nothing if not fair.

 

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves  by Karen Joy Fowler

Image showing the first page of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler.

Those who know me now will be surprised to learn that I was a great talker as a child. We have a home movie taken when I was two years old, the old-fashioned kind with no sound track, and by now the colors have bled out - a white sky, my red sneakers a ghostly pink - but you can still see how much I used to talk. 

I'm doing a bit of landscaping, picking up one stone at a time from our gravel driveway, carrying it to a large tin washtub, dropping it in, and going back for the next. I'm working hard, but showily. I widen my eyes like a silent film star. I hold up a clear piece of quartz to be admired, put it in my mouth, stuff it into one cheek. 

My mother appears and removes it. She steps back then, out of the frame, but I'm speaking emphatically now - you can see this in my gestures - and she returns, drops the stone into the tub. The whole things lasts about five minutes and I never stop talking. 

A few years later, Mom read us that old fairy tale in which one sister (the older) speaks in toads and snakes and the other (the younger) in flowers and jewels, and this is the image it conjured for me, this scene from this movie, where my mother puts her hand into my mouth and pulls out a diamond.

Half of a Yellow Sun  by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Image of the first page of Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi. 

Master was a little crazy; he had spent too many years reading books overseas, talked to himself in his office, did not always return greetings, and had too much hair. Ugwu's aunty said this in a low voice as they walked on the path. 'But he is a good man,' she added. 'And as long as you work well, you will eat well. You will even eat meat every day.' She stopped to spit; the saliva left her mouth with a sucking noise and landed on the grass. 

Ugwu did not believe that anybody, not even this master he was goign to live with, ate meat every day. He did not disagree with his aunty, though, because he was too choked with expectation, too busy imagining his new life away from the village. They had been walking for a while now, since they got off the lorry at the motorpark, and the afternoon sun burned the back of his neck. But he did not mind. He was prepared to walk hours more in even hotter sun. He had never seen anything like the streets that appeared after they went past the university gates, streets so smooth and tarred that he itched to lay his cheek down on them. He would never be able to describe to his sister Anulika how the bungalows here were painted the colour of the sky and sat side by side like polite, well-dressed men, how the hedges separating them were tripped so flat on top that they looked like tables wrapped with leaves.

Perfume  by Patrick Suskind

Image showing the first page of Perfume by Patrick Suskind.

In eighteenth-century France there lived a man who was one of the most gifted and abominable personages in an era that knew no lack of gifted and abominable personages. His story will be told here. His name was Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, and if his name - in contrast to the names of other gifted abominations, de Sade's for instance, or Saint-Just's, Fouche's, Bonaparte's, etc. - has been forgotten today, it is certainly not because Grenouille fell short of those more famous blackguards when it came to arrogance, misanthropy, immorality, or, more succinctly, wickedness, but because his gifts and his sole ambition were restricted to a domain that leaves no trace in history: to the fleeting realm of scent.

The Accidental  by Ali Smith

Image showing the first page of The Accidental by Ali Smith. 

My mother began me one evening in 1968 on a table in the cafe of the town's only cinema. One short flight of stairs away, up behind the balding red velvet of the Balcony curtain, the usherette was yawning, dandling her off torch, leaning on her elbow above the rustlings and tonguings of the back row and picking at the wood of the partition, flicking little splinters of it at the small-town heads in the dark. On the screen above them was the film Poor Cow, with Terrence Stamp, an actor of such numinousness that my mother, young, chic, slender and imperious, and watching the film for the third time that week, had stood up, letting her seat thud up behind her, pushed past the legs of the people in her row and headed up the grubby aisle to the exit, through the curtain and out into the light.

The Steel Remains by Richard Morgan

Image of the opening few paragraphs of The Steel Remains by Richard Morgan. 

When a man you know to be of sound mind tells you his recently deceased mother has just tried to climb in his bedroom window and eat him, you only have two basic options. You can smell his breath, take his pulse and check his pupils to see if he's ingesting anything nasty, or you can believe him. Ringil had already tried the first course of action with Bashka the Schoolmaster and to no avoid, so he put down his pint with an elaborate sigh and went to get his broadsword. 

'Not this again,' he was heard to mutter as he pushed through into the residents' bar.

Whatcha think? Which of these would you pick up and read, based on the first paragraph or so? Which would you give up on? Do you really think it’s possible to make a snap judgement on the quality of a book in such a short space of time? Do your opening chapters contain those four magical elements? Well, punk? Do they?

Let us know in the comments, or go and shout at us on the forum and tell us about your favourite first chapters – or how YOUR book is going to start/break all the rules/bring about world peace.

Next up… what NOT to put in your opening chapter – check out our companion blog, Beware the Overused Novel Opening to dodge the bullet of lit agents’ pet hates…

Image of a bookshelf with text: elements of a kickass opening chapter.
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JoWHQ

JoWHQ

Jo is a writer who procrastinates about writing by writing about writing. She looks exactly like her avatar.
A happy woman sitting on a green sofa with a laptop. Lovely kitchen in the background. I'd be happy too tbh

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