What makes a great opening chapter?

novel opening chapterWhat makes you pick up and buy a novel by an author you’ve never heard of?

As I’m an aspiring novelist – three started, three abandoned, a fourth in gestation – you may find it surprising to learn that I don’t frequent book shops much.

It’s not that I don’t like books, I do, I love them dearly, I love the smell and the feel of them, and the promise that’s held between the covers, it’s just that they’re a bit, how shall I put this? Expensive!   

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not begrudging the authors their rightful dues, they deserve all the credit and financial rewards they can get. And if I had a published novel out there I would want it to be as dear as they come.

No, my problem is that I read a lot of novels, and I very rarely read one more than once. So why would I buy new books at between £5 and £15 only to sit them on a shelf and look pretty?

From where then, you may ask, do I get my reading matter? Simple answer: charity shops. My local Age Concern shop has a good and ever-changing range of titles which are priced at 50 cents for a paperback and 1 Euro for a hardback. Generally, I go there once a fortnight and buy four or five books, depending on what I find on the day.

Once I’ve read them all I go back to the shop, give them back for someone else to read and buy a few more. I don’t delude myself by thinking I’m a great philanthropist, I just like to think of it as recycling. It’s fascinating to ponder upon the lives this book has touched, the places it has been and the effect it has had on the readers before me. Not to mention the places and the minds it has yet to visit.

So how do I choose which books to buy?

Everyone is different, of course, but for me it’s not primarily the author as I very often choose books by authors I’ve never heard of. Basically, when you’re browsing in charity shops, it’s down to the cover design, closely followed by the blurb on the back.

If I see yet another ‘Maverick cop/Special agent/Private eye/Retired special forces soldier, who has no time for authority, and who takes on the evil mastermind and saves the world’ type of scenario then it goes straight back on the shelf. Bor-ing!

If it gets past the first hurdle it then goes on to the ‘let’s have a look inside’ test, and that’s exactly what I do. This is what makes or breaks it, the first page will be the decider. If it ‘grabs’ me, it goes into the basket, if it doesn’t, it gets rejected.

The first couple of paragraphs are probably one of the most important things an author needs to get right. If he can hook the casual browser within a few sentences, he’s going to make the sale.

What I don’t want to see in the first couple of paragraphs

  • Boring description/flowery prose – I want to engage straight away, not be told how blue/overcast/stormy the sky is, or precisely what model of car a character is driving, or how far it is from Chigago to Los Angeles.
  • Too many characters – It just makes it harder to get into the story if the first page is loaded with irrelevant character description. Who cares yet?
  • Excessive or pointless dialogue – I don’t know the characters yet, so why should I care about the minutae of their lives?
  • Waffle – Get to the point, I really am looking to be engaged and engrossed, help me out here!

What I do want to see on the first page

  • Something pivotal – A moment or event that leads me straight towards the main action of the story.
  • Shocking or witty opening dialogue – A unique character’s voice which makes me want to find out more.
  • An unusual situation – Something happening that’s so out of the ordinary that I have to know what comes next.
  • Action or danger – Nothing quite like a bit of danger to get the pulse racing.
  • Strong emotions – If a character can evoke an emotional response straight away, then I’m hooked, baby!

There are, of course, many more ways an author can hook you with his opening paragraphs, but this is a blog post, not a scientific thesis. I don’t want to run the risk of boring you into a state of stupor!

Long live the novel, and keep reading, it will enrich your life, fuel your brain and take you to places you would never otherwise visit.

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