How to write an explosive opening chapter
The book is picked up because of the cover. It’s flipped over to read the blurb. Then, the first page is found and the opening sentences are read. This is the buying process for most people who are browsing. Your opening chapter is therefore a key contributor to book sales.
What do we mean by an explosive opening chapter?
We’re not saying that your opening chapter needs to have an actual explosion, or indeed anything as physically dramatic as that. If written right, you can produce just as much tension from a conversation as a fist fight. The start of your novel needs to create an interest in the reader that makes them want to read on. An urgency to know more.
And there are various ways to do this.
Plunge into the action
A common critique from agents and publishers reviewing submissions is that the writer takes too long to get to the action with their opening chapter. Very often a whole prologue can be scrapped because it’s just pointless exposition and the story doesn’t really start until the point of action.
A reason why writers feel they need a few pages of writing before the explosive moment is because they feel they need to explain everything. Trust the reader to go along with your writing. If you grip them with your explosive start and drop breadcrumbs of backstory as you go, they’ll be swept up in the tale.
And this doesn’t need to be action in the sense of physical movement, but action in the sense of tension.
If your opening chapter involves a character, there has to be something about them that strikes the reader. And this is the case whether they’re a baddy or a goody.
The intrinsically narcissistic Patrick Bateman somehow maintains our engagement in American Psycho, just as much as the morally pure Frodo Baggins in Tolkien’s trilogy. It’s the way the characters are written that makes them intriguing.
A lot of this is down to relatability. When we read a book, we cling to the things we find that are a little like us. All of us can be a little vain. Not, of course on the Bateman level, but these elements of familiarity in the book justify the reader’s curiosity to know more about his character.
We don’t have to be orphans to relate to the yearning to belong that characters such as Anne from Anne of Green Gables and Harry from Harry Potter feel.
Take a look at your protagonist. What characteristics can you highlight to draw an emotion out of the reader?
Setting and mood
It might be that you choose to have your opening chapter start with the setting, rather than a character. This is a good way to ground the reader to the surroundings of your story.
With some genres, setting is prominent. Fantasy novels in particular rely on authentic world-building right from the beginning. If the reader doesn’t believe the place of your story, they won’t be reading very far into your book.
Ask yourself, what kind of mood is it that you want to create? Eerie? Sombre? Hectic? Use descriptive language to create the smells, sights, and sounds of your setting. Submerge your reader into the world that’s been marinating in your subconscious for so long.
The first line of a story is one of the biggest obstacles an author faces. It’s the first thing a reader, reviewer, agent, publisher reads and it establishes your opening chapter. It’s one of those things that you’ll know when it’s right. Take a look at some of these opening lines as examples. Read them and think about what they conjure for you.
‘The boat moved with a nauseous rhythm, like someone chewing on a rotten tooth.’
-The Lie Tree, Frances Hardinge
‘Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening Hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen.’
-Northern Lights, Philip Pullman
“So, have you split up now?”
-About A Boy, Nick Hornby
‘I died just after the clock in the passageway struck nine.’
-Fools and Mortals, Bernard Cornwell
‘Let me tell you a couple of horrible secrets.’
-Yesterday, Felecia Yapp
‘I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975.’
-The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini
Ending the chapter
Another vital element to an explosive opening chapter, is how you end it. The ending needs to hint at what’s to come in a natural and seemless way.
Take a look at some of your favourite books – the ones you whipped through at lightning speed – and learn from them. Often the next chapter will pick up from where the last one ended, making a seamless transferral. Or, you can end on a cliff-hanger, to then start a completely new point of view to freshen things up for the reader.
The ending of your opening chapter should lead into the next. Along the way the reader will be wondering various questions, which they’ll want to turn the page and find out the answers.
An explosive opening to your novel is crucial for reader engagement and book sales. The story you’re writing is unique and there isn’t a one-size-fits-all way to go about this. The pointers we’ve listed, however, may help you tackle the formidable task of writing the opening chapter.
If you have any thoughts on how to write a cracking opening to a book, we’d love to hear it. Or, let us know you favourite opening line from a book. Comments welcome below.