Novel Beginnings: Eight Tips for Writing a More Compelling Opening Chapter

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If you have ever read The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah, you probably remember this opening line:

“If I have learned anything in this long life of mine, it is this: In love, we find out who we want to be; in war, we find out who we are.”

I’d be hard pressed to find any opening more poignant than this one. From the very start, readers are taken on an emotional journey that doesn’t end until the final sentence.

Writers are tasked with the challenge to create a similar experience with their readers. The start of any  novel should accomplish several things: create the tone of the story, provide the point of view, reveal character, and show tension and conflict, among other things. Certainly, the opening line from The Nightingale accomplishes most of these objectives. Does your story do the same?

Why is the opening so critical? Because if it doesn’t grab the reader’s interest and keep it for the first few pages, the reader will likely close the book and set it aside, never getting to the end of it. Ask any published author, editor or agent what makes a strong opening, and you’ll hear a number of answers, which are summarized below. And these suggestions don’t just pertain to fiction, but to short stories, memoir and non-fiction works too. Without a compelling start, readers will dismiss your effort.

If you are participating in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), it might be helpful to keep the following suggestions in mind as you write the opening of your novel.

1. Skip the prologue. There is ongoing debate about the merits of a prologue. Many editors and agents feel they aren’t necessary. I tend to agree with them. I’ve rarely read a prologue that made a difference in my understanding of the plot. The one exception is Caught by Harlan Coben, which provided sufficient background on one of the main characters to make you second guess the outcome. But if you plan your story well and write the opening pages right, there shouldn’t be a need for a prologue.

2. Create a protagonist that readers will care about. The opening is your opportunity to reveal your protagonist’s character. Is he/she rebellious, angry, ambitious or curious? In the above opening from The Nightingale, the character speaking is introspective and perhaps has gained wisdom from life experience. It makes me care about who she is and what else she (and it is a she, btw) might have to say.

3. Ground your reader in the story’s setting. According to the Write Practice blog, let readers see where the story takes place. Establish early on what the setting is for the story – the time period, the location, the season of the year, etc. When the reader feels grounded in the setting, they feel mentally prepared to experience the events as the characters do.

4. Create conflict and tension. Identify what the inciting incident is – that starting point to your story that changes the status quo. Where is the conflict? Is that conflict with another character, with a situation or within themselves? That conflict is needed to create tension, which helps draw readers in and keep them reading to see how the conflict is resolved.  

5. Don’t frontload with dialogue or action. According to Fuse Literary, too much action or dialogue can confuse readers. Sure, you want to start with some sort of action, but an opening chapter heavy on action and dialogue and not enough narrative or backstory can be confusing to readers who may need a point of reference to understand what is happening on the page. You need some action, of course, but balance it with some narrative so you don’t lose readers’ interest.

6. Don’t overload the opening with backstory either. According to recent Reedsy webinar, Crafting a Novel Opening, writers should focus on what the reader needs to know at that moment. There’s plenty of time to reveal backstory and world building as the story progresses, says Shaelin Bishop who led the discussion. Weave in backstory throughout the length of the manuscript, and allow details to breathe between scenes. This approach will help with the pacing too. If readers are overloaded with details up front, they may feel overwhelmed.

7. Hook the reader with an interesting twist. Start where the story gets interesting, which is usually at the point where there’s a change in the status quo. For example, the protagonist gets a letter with good news or bad news, a new person enters the protagonist’s life, or they get into an accident that alters the course of their life.  “Show what is interesting rather than focusing on the mundane. It’s okay to show less of the status quo than you think you need to,” says Shaelin Bishop with Reedsy. This approach avoids overloading your opening chapter with too many details that can bore your reader.

8. Every scene should serve several purposes. For example, one scene can establish the tone of the story, reveal something about the character and hint at future conflict. This sounds complex, but it’s necessary to keep the story moving forward and keep readers interested. Don’t waste your first sentence, or any sentence for that matter. Write every scene with a purpose in mind. If it doesn’t serve  purpose, and if a character doesn’t serve a purpose, cut them out.

To get into the habit of writing stronger openings, try these two exercises.

Exercise 1: Take 10 minutes and create as many opening sentences as you can think of. It could be for a current work in progress or any other story. Experiment with different perspectives. Here are a couple of examples of intriguing openings that made me keep reading:

“You would think it would be impossible to find anything new in the world, creatures no man has ever seen before, one-of-a-kind oddities in which nature has taken a backseat to the coursing pulse of the fantastical and the marvelous. I can tell you with certainty that such things exists ….”
The Museum of Extraordinary Things, Alice Hoffman

“My name is Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) and almost forty years ago I was sent on a secret mission for the British Security Service. I didn’t return safely. Within eighteen months of joining, I was sacked, having disgraced myself and ruined my lover, though he certainly had a hand in his own undoing.”
Sweet Tooth, Ian McEwan

Exercise 2: Select five novels from your collection that you enjoyed reading. Go back and read the first page from each one. What made you turn the page? Why did it grab your interest? Did it reveal anything about the setting, tone or character? Did it create tension and conflict? What can you learn from these first pages that you can adapt to your own work?

Hope you find these tips and exercises helpful.  

How to Juggle Multiple Writing Projects Without Losing Your Sanity

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Like most writers I know, I tend to work on several different writing projects at one time. In addition to writing this blog, I’m currently writing a novel, I have several essays in various stages of completion, and I just completed a freelance writing assignment for a client. The work certainly keeps me busy, but sometimes it can be difficult to keep them all straight. If I decide to work on one project, it means I can’t give my attention to the others.

Add to that all the extra administrative and marketing work that goes along with writing for a living, and you can see how easy it is to get overwhelmed.

There’s a constant struggle to maintain balance in my work schedule. Every morning, I ask myself, “Which piece should I work on today?” It’s a problem I don’t mind having because the alternative is spending hours in an office doing work that sucks the life out of my soul.

However, managing multiple projects does have a few upsides, writes author Heather Webb at the Writer Unboxed blog. It alleviates “manuscript fatigue,” she says. Switching between projects prevents you from getting too tired of one project. After a few days away from it, you can come back to it with fresh eyes.”

Having multiple projects also takes the pressure off of trying to create the “perfect” piece, Webb adds. Since you’re not putting all your eggs in one basket, you have more freedom to experiment with your writing. That can only help you produce better quality writing.

Managing multiple projects has its upsides, but it has plenty of challenges too.

Challenge 1:  There’s a limited amount of time to work on any one project.

When you’re working on several stories at once, you don’t have as much time to work on each of them as you’d like. Obviously, the paid work comes first because there are deadlines, and if you don’t make those deadlines, you don’t get paid. Once you submit your paid piece and return to an essay that’s closer to your heart after an extended time away from it, it can be difficult to get back into the flow of the story again. You can begin to feel disconnected from the story altogether.

Solution:  Re-read the last chapter of your novel, the beginning of the essay or review your notes. These are obvious starting points that will allow you to pick up the thread of the action. With fresh eyes, you might even resolve a plot point or come up with a new character.

Challenge 2:  Characters and story lines can blend in with one another.

Sometimes characters and protagonists begin to blend in with one another when you switch from one story to the next too often. This is even more disconcerting if those stories happen in different cities or eras of history.

Solution: Much like challenge #1, re-read the previous scenes to get inside the character’s mindset, or as Webb suggests at the Writer Unboxed blog, try journaling in the character’s voice to get inside their head again.

Challenge 3:  Creative burnout can occur.

When working on many projects, or worse, when you’re up against multiple deadlines, things can get a bit crazy. Working at that level of creativity for too long can produce creative burnout, writes Mark McGuinness, author of Productivity for Creative People (a book I definitely must read). That’s not a sustainable routine for the long term. (See this article in The Write Life for details.)

Solution:  Create a sustainable workload by limiting yourself to two to four writing projects to keep yourself sane. Make a list of the most important activities you need to work on, such as client work, family obligations and recurring tasks. These activities form the base for your time obligations. Next fill in what’s left – your spare time – with one or two writing projects. That approach, says McGuinness, will give you the time and space you need to work on what’s important to you while keeping you sane.

While it’s easy for writers and creative professionals to have several projects going on at the same time, it’s not so easy to manage them efficiently without ruining your life. When you set priorities and allow some downtime to transition between stories, you can manage multiple writing projects with greater ease and better results.

How to Give Writing Feedback — Thoughtfully and Effectively

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Whether you’re part of a writer’s group or manage a department of creatives, you may be called upon to give feedback about someone else’s work. It can be doubly difficult to critique someone’s work, especially if you like and respect that person. You don’t want to upset them or discourage them from writing more. On the contrary, you want to provide feedback that will challenge them to produce better work.

Most experts agree that it’s important to provide some positive comments along with negative feedback. Critiques without positive comments can be devastating to creative types, who are naturally sensitive about work that they’ve poured their heart and soul into. Negative critiques can make writers feel their work has no redeeming value, and they may be tempted to give up writing altogether. There is always something positive to find about someone’s work. A good editor will see it and won’t hesitate to share it.

So what’s the best way to handle critiques? How can you provide meaningful feedback that supports and encourages other people to produce better work without crushing their soul? Here are a few tips for giving effective feedback.

1. Read the piece thoroughly. If it’s a shorter piece, like an essay or news article, read it several times. Here’s how I like to assess a written work: The first time through, I read to get the gist of the story. During the second reading, I make notes about technical issues, like grammar, punctuation and run-on sentences. The third time through, I make notes about content issues. Are there confusing plot points? Does the story flow seamlessly, or are there sticking points where nothing appears to be happening? It’s usually during that third reading that the biggest issues pop out like a neon sign. If possible, avoid reading the piece right before meeting with the writer. It simply does not allow enough time to mull over the writing.

2. Find the story’s good qualities. Don’t just focus on mistakes and confusing content. Start with sharing the positive qualities of the story. Some managers and editors have used the sandwich method for critiquing a person’s work — couching negative feedback between two positive statements. According to the Grammarly blog, some editorial experts claim that this method isn’t effective in providing constructive criticism. I see nothing wrong with this approach, however. I suspect that its lack of effectiveness has more to do with not properly communicating constructive feedback.

Here’s how the sandwich method works:

“I love your story idea. I think it’s sharp and witty, and a lot of people will appreciate the humor. However, I noticed a tendency for run-on sentences. Perhaps you were thinking faster than you could write? Sometimes it helps to read aloud your story so you notice those run-on sentences. Once you fix those run-on sentences, I think you’ll have a stronger story..

You notice that I not only pointed out the weakness of the story, I offered a suggestion for fixing it.

3. Choose your words carefully. According to the Balance Careers blog, it might be helpful to begin statements with “I” rather than “You.” The “you” focus can be perceived as a personal attack, which you want to avoid. Focus on your own response to the story. Instead of saying, “Your story is boring,” say “I found the story boring in some sections.”

Be honest with your critique, but approach it with the intent of helping the writer improve their work. Always offer suggestion or tips, but refrain from directing the writer how to fix things. Respect them enough to give them space for resolving their own writing issues.

4. Provide detail… Don’t just mention the issue, but provide some detail. Don’t just say, “I thought your story was boring.” Explain why you thought it was boring. Was the entire piece boring to you, or just one or two paragraphs? Was there too much narrative when you were looking for more dialogue? Did the story need more conflict? Did the story move off on a tangent that was difficult to follow and had nothing to do with the story? The more feedback you provide can help the writer analyze their story with an eye on improving it.

5. …But don’t nitpick. You might notice a lot of things wrong with the story. In that case, for the sake of your working relationship, focus on only one or two things that the writer can easily fix. Remember, your role is to provide helpful, practical suggestions.

6. Call out recurring mistakes right away. If you have read several pieces by the same writer over time and notice that they tend to make the same mistakes over and over again, you need to call them out right away, suggests the marketing experts at Hubspot. Don’t just fix the problems for them without mentioning it. If necessary, make the correction and show it to them so they see how to fix it. The only way they will learn not to make the same mistakes again is to make them aware of them in the first place. The sooner you mention those errors, the sooner they can learn to correct them on their own.

7. Ask questions to guide the writer. According to Grammarly, when you ask the writer questions about their work, it gets them to thinking about how to solve their own writing issues. It guides them to resolve the issues on their own rather than you telling them how to do it. For example, you might suggest, “Is there a way to simplify this paragraph, perhaps edit it for shorter sentences? It might make the story easier to read.”

8. Don’t make it personal. Critique the work, not the writer. Set aside whatever personal feelings you have toward the writer and focus on the work in front of you.

Remember these are works-in-progress, not finished pieces. Your job is to provide feedback to help the writer improve their work and sharpen their skills. Think about those times when you’ve had your own work critiqued. How did you feel when you received feedback? Did you feel deflated and discouraged, or were you energized and excited about moving forward with your story? Be the editor you’d like others to be with your own work.