Writing Beginnings: The First Chapter of Your Novel
"Last night I dreamt I went to Manderly again." That's one of the most famous first sentences in the world, from the novel Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, and it's a good illustration of the power of a good opening.
Your opening paragraph is the most important in the whole book—it's what draws your reader into the story. People often think that means it must be exciting, or shocking, action-packed or dramatic. Wrong! The job of an opening sentence is to leave the reader intrigued, curious to know more, like that wistful first sentence from Rebecca.
Openings That Ask a Question
Here are some more opening lines to illustrate my point:
"Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice". - Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude
"It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not." - Paul Auster, City of Glass (1985)
"It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen." - George Orwell, 1984 (1949)
All of these opening lines make you wonder. Why is Buendía facing a firing squad? Why did the phone ring and what was the "it" it started? Why were the clocks striking thirteen?
Of course, there are successful novels with opening lines that don't raise questions, but they're successful in spite of, not because of, their beginning. And their authors weren't having to market their own work - if you're self-publishing, you need to use all the weapons you can muster to catch your readers!
Anyway, there's more to it than just one sentence. It can be quite easy to come up with an intriguing first sentence, but if you satisfy the reader's curiosity too early, they'll put the book down again. You want to draw them further into the story, beyond page 2, so they have to buy the book to find out the rest.
If you can't find a way to create that curiosity over your first few pages, chances are you've started your story in the wrong place.
The first few lines of your novel should make your reader ask a question which can only be answered by continuing to read.
Cut the Backstory
A common mistake for newbie writers is to use their first chapter to set up the story. Wrong! To keep your reader interested, you need to throw them into the story from page one. If you start giving them a lot of background for a story they don't know yet, they'll lose interest.
There are plenty of techniques to fill the reader in on the background as you go along, so don't risk losing them before you even start! This is such a big topic I've created a separate article on backstory.
When a Prologue Works
In many books and courses about writing, you'll be told you should never use a prologue. I've only recently understood why that is, and I'm grateful to publisher Carina Press for starting this informative debate on their blog. It's worth reading both the post and the comments, but in a nutshell, it's common for readers to skip the prologue and go straight to Chapter 1. This came as a surprise to me, but it seems the habit is the result of too many writers using prologues for the wrong reasons. Readers have learned that prologues are often a way for a writer to dump a heap of backstory, which they don't want to wade through - they want to get straight to the action. That's a problem, because used properly, a prologue can be a great way to start a book.
A prologue picks a pivotal scene from either your backstory or your main story, and tells it in isolation. By its very nature, that means it should be an exciting scene that grabs your reader. If it's a scene from the past, then you're telling it because it lets the reader in on a secret that informs the action through the rest of the novel. If it's a scene from the future, you're telling it because you want the reader to think, "wow, how is that going to come about?" In both cases, you're using your prologue to create the "hook" that draws your reader in and makes them want to read your story.
Of course, that becomes a huge problem if readers are going to skip it. If you've created your "hook" in the prologue, you probably won't be able to offer another one in chapter one.
How Prologues Should Work
This example of how prologues should work is from my upcoming novel. In the first chapter, the heroine gets involved with Yuri, a smooth charmer who's really a Russian mafioso. The chapter is written from the heroine's point of view. As you'll know if you've read my article on Point of View, that means I can't reveal anything she doesn't know herself - so I have no way to let the reader know the man's true nature. The chapter reads like a romantic encounter - nothing there to pique the reader's interest.
I've tried starting the novel later in the story, but it creates all kinds of problems which I can't resolve. Instead, I decided to add a prologue, showing Yuri's true nature being revealed in a violent act later in the story. When the reader gets to chapter one, they know Yuri isn't the wealthy businessman he appears and they wonder if the heroine will get burnt.
Then I discovered that many readers don't read prologues, and that meant I couldn't count on readers knowing about Yuri! But I couldn't find a way to insert warning signs in chapter one without making my heroine look stupid for not noticing them.
My eventual solution was to write a different prologue, this time showing the two brothers six months before the story begins. Ad even though it was really a prologue because it was such a long time before chapter one, I made another very simple change: I labelled my prologue as chapter one, so the old chapter one became chapter two, and so on. After all, there's no rule that chapters have to follow closely in time, one after the other.
The main thing to remember is that your opening lines can make or break your novel, so it's worth investing the time to make them the best they can be!