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 SharkJanet 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?”

Samar Hammam

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.

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 

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves  by Karen Joy Fowler

Half of a Yellow Sun  by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Perfume  by Patrick Suskind

The Accidental  by Ali Smith

The Steel Remains by Richard Morgan

 

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 Twitter or Facebook 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…

AND ALSO AS WELL – if you’re in need of help in getting your head around the whole terrifying sending-your-manuscript-to-agents-process, or fancy a masterclass in query and synopsis writing, boy have we got the goods for you. Take a looksee at our Publishing 101 courses and make your submissions package the best it can be.

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