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.  

The Seven Scariest Excuses People Make to Avoid Writing

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If you’re like most people, you’ve probably made a myriad of excuses for not getting any writing done – lack of time, fear of failure, too busy, no privacy, nothing to write about, etc.

Below are the seven most common excuses I’ve heard people use to explain why they aren’t writing. I call them the Seven Deadly Excuses because they can kill a person’s writing practice before it has a chance to flourish. Many of these excuses are influenced by negative messages and assumptions you’ve heard since childhood. By reframing these messages and taking positive action, those fears will diminish over time.

Excuse 1: “I don’t have time to write.”
A lack of time is the most common excuse people make about not writing. If this is your biggest fear, chances are your writing practice has never gotten off the ground, or you write in fits and starts. You always talk about wanting to write, but you never do anything about it.

The problem isn’t that you don’t have time to write, but the expectation of how much time is needed for writing. If you expect a writing practice to take up two, three or four hours every day, that is unrealistic. No one has that kind of time. With full-time jobs, clients to take care of, families to raise and other important responsibilities, there’s little time left over for writing.

The truth is, you don’t need hours at a time to write. When you’re just starting a writing practice, only ten or fifteen minutes a day will suffice. For example, while working as an attorney, A Time to Kill author John Grisham set a goal of writing one page per day, roughly 200 words. Grisham shows it is possible to fit writing into your schedule.

Excuse #2: “I’m too busy.” 
When you say that you’re too busy to write, what you may actually be saying is that writing is a low priority compared to other responsibilities, such as a work, school, taking care of kids or aging parents, etc. Who has time to begin a writing practice when all these other priorities compete for your attention?

Perhaps you learned in childhood that school work and household chores came first before you could watch TV, play with your friends, or write in your diary. If this was your experience, writing became a low priority.

But maybe it’s time to rethink those priorities. Maybe it’s time to make writing a higher priority than before. When you make writing a priority, you’ll find it’s easier to begin a regular writing practice. If all you need is fifteen minutes a day, that’s time well spent, no matter how busy you are.

Excuse 3: “My writing isn’t good enough.”
From the first moment you put pen to paper, your writing probably won’t be very good.
That’s normal for most beginning writers. But it’s true for experienced ones too. Kristin Hannah, author of The Nightingale, writes as many as 10 drafts of each novel because she knows the first draft isn’t her best or final work. It’s simply the starting point that she can build on.

If you continually tell yourself that your writing is not good enough, ask yourself why you feel that way. What is your writing not good enough for? Publication? For other people to see?

Instead of berating yourself for not writing well, make a plan to keep improving. Read authors whose work you admire, so you can learn from them. When you write something, ask for feedback. Constructive criticism can help you spot recurring errors. Most important, write, write, write.

Excuse 4: “I don’t know what to write about!”
Do you suffer from blank page syndrome – the act of staring at a blank page or computer screen with no idea what to write about?  Or when you do come up with a story ideas, do you dismiss it as uninteresting?

When faced with a blank page, you may be overlooking the best source of story ideas: personal experience. You have plenty of life experience to draw from, so explore those events from your past to adapt to your stories. One way to access this reservoir of life experience is with writing prompts. You can find hundreds of prompts on sites such as  Writer’s Digest and DIYMFA.com.

Excuse 5: “I don’t have a private space to write.”
If you share a home with a spouse, three children, a dog and two cats, it may be difficult to find a quiet, private space to write. Others believe that without ideal circumstances, such as a desk and comfortable chair, their favorite coffee mug and favorite pen, they’re just not able to write.

You need to ask yourself if the problem is an actual lack of space, or the expectation that you need a lot of space to write. I’ve drafted blog posts on breaks at work, on buses and trains or while waiting for appointments. If you wish you had ideal surroundings and your current environment is far from ideal, you may be waiting forever to start writing. The truth is, your environment does not need to be perfect to begin writing.

Excuse 6:  “I’m afraid to fail.”
Another common excuse writers make is “What if I fail?“  The answer depends on how you define failure. What does failure look like to you? Not getting published? Not finishing your current work-in-progress? Not having anyone read your work? Not having anyone take your writing as seriously as you do? Everybody has their own definition of failure, but in reality, there is only one true failure: not writing at all.

To remove that fear of failure, it might be helpful to start small and work your way toward bigger projects. Start with stories of 100 words, then increase it to 200 words, and so on. Every week or so, add to your daily word count. When you reach these smaller goals, you gain confidence in yourself and you achieve small successes that you can build on.

Excuse 7: “What if I’m successful?”
While fear of failure is common among writers, others suffer from a different malaise:  fear of success. “How can anyone be afraid to succeed?” you ask. You’d be surprised at how many people fear success, myself included.

Fear of success might manifest as an unfinished project – or two, or three or ten. You have several projects in various stages of completion but never seem to finish any of them. In your mind, finishing one of them means you’ve achieved success. Then you worry about what happens when you finish that project. Perhaps you edit your piece over and over again, never fully satisfied with what you’ve written – a useful delay tactic preventing you from finishing your work.

If you fear success, then you may need to rethink what success means to you. What does it look like? It may look and feel differently to you than to your spouse or your best friend. Are you defining success on your terms or someone else’s?

When you define success on your terms, there should be no reason to fear it because you’ve defined it based on real, concrete and meaningful terms. It’s when you follow the path of success that others have defined for you that can strike fear in you. Write  according to your definition of success, not anyone else’s.

When you manage your expectations to conquer your fears, the writing life won’t seem so scary.