On the Brink:
Turbo-charge Your Opening
by Alicia Rasley
editor isn't grabbed by your first few chapters, she won't ask to
see more. (She might not even finish reading!) So these chapters
have to be terrific, first, and second, give her a good feel for
what the entire book is about—and, of course, hook her into wanting
to read more.
To do this,
you have to step back and be analytical about your book's opening.
Some writers even leave writing this section till last, when they
know what the entire book is about. But especially if you wrote that
first chapter months, even years ago, you need to go back and read
it over in light of what you've learned about writing and this story
blunt with you here—most openings written a long time ago, before
you got into the tone and theme of the book, aren't likely to fit
the book anymore. I'm facing this now—I crafted an opening suitable
for a longer book than I now want this to be. The opening is funny
and charming, but very leisurely. It's just not paced like the rest
of the book, which has something important happening in every
chapter. It's more the opening for a comedy than a mystery. (Mine's
a meld of both, but more mystery than comedy.) So I'm going to be
going back and sharpening the opening, keeping the basic events but
cutting back on the extended comic riffs. I'm also going to do more
to set up my internal protagonist theme of "a woman regaining
control of her life after a trauma".
inviting you to do the same—to put on your analytical hat and
examine what your first three chapters need to be to appropriately
open your book. This might well be not what your first three
chapters ARE at the moment, so be prepared to rewrite. (I know how
hard this is... I'm facing it myself! :)
then by thinking of what the editor wants out of the first three
chapters (besides 15 misspellings on page 1 so that she can reject
without reading anymore!).
wants to know you can write a coherent sentence, paragraph, page,
chapter—that is, that your prose style isn't going to drive her
wants to get a sense of who the central characters are, the hero and
heroine especially, what matters to them, what they care about, what
their strengths are and what problems those might bring. She wants
to get a sense—but probably no more than a sense—of what their
internal issues are. She wants to have a good idea of what their
immediate motivation is for getting involved in this
She wants an opening situation that involves and
intrigues the reader, whether that includes some Hollywood-style
hook or just a couple of likeable characters in some believable jam.
wants to get an idea about where and when these people are and what
relationship they have with that place (like in a small southern
town in 1964—she's a new resident; he's a civil rights worker from
the north come to integrate the local schools). If you can show that
there's some issue in this place (like segregation) which will be
explored during the book, the editor would like to see that set up
wants the book's external conflict to be initiated fairly soon,
perhaps in chapter 2 if not earlier. It doesn't have to be the
full-blown conflict (say, the voting-rights drive) but some sign of
the emergence of conflict (the freedom-rider arrives in town). She
probably wants to see how everyone (especially the protagonist)
responds to the conflict in the beginning (this response is likely
to be less than the response needed to solve the conflict—save that
till the end. :)
She's going to want to know that you can pace a
chapter and a scene, that you have something essential happening in
every scene, that you keep the story moving along, that you don't
stop dead for pages of description, that your dialogue has a point
beyond being charming and funny (that's my weakness—charming, funny,
nonessential dialogue... sigh).
wants to get a sense of what tone the book will have. If it's a
comedy, these first chapters should be funny... but funny in the way
the rest of the book is funny. If it's going to be a leisurely,
anecdotal book, then these chapters should set that up. If it's
going to rival Arnold Schwarzenegger for action, then she'll want to
get on that roller coaster on page 1.
Here are some things to consider as you revise
your opening for greater power:
Purposes of Opening Chapters:
2. Show "old world"—the environment before the
events of the plot—the "opportunity for change." 3. Show protagonist before the events of the
plot—the "opportunity for change" and any goal.
Discover major characters—give the reader a first glimpse of them
and their situation.
5. Give a sense of how these people perceive the
world and themselves.
6. Initiate action with an event which shows all
of the above.
7. Bring on the external conflict.
at internal conflict—maybe show it affecting the protagonist's
9. Set up the interpersonal dynamics. How do
these characters relate to each other? What are their issues?
the major story questions.
11. Bring on the antagonist and his/her
12. Start the protagonist's action/reaction.
at backstory—tell only what's necessary at this point, what is
natural to tell.
Discovering the Characters:
Look at your opening scenes. What do they say
about the main characters and what matters to them and how they
might need to change? This is the first impression your reader will
get, so present them in action, doing something that shows their
values and issues. Do you give some sense of their central strength
and how it affects their actions?
Revealing the Issues:
You don't have to spell it out—rather show the
conflict in character action. What's the first scene where the
booklength external conflict first arises? It should be
early—chapter two or earlier—as that's when the story really gets
engaged. But even before that you can show the issues involved with
your glimpse of the "old world" and the "before-protagonist". How
does the heroine respond to minor racism, before she's confronted
with the major racism that is the external conflict? Remember to
leave space for change here—if she responds with perfect heroism
right away, she doesn't have a lot of growing room.
Scenes are units of action based around actual
events. Don't wimp out with a flashback or a long scene of musing.
Center the opening scenes on the characters' experiences and
actions. Anchor the event in the setting. As Kate Moore puts it,
"We're somewhere, and something is happening." And make the event
relevant to the plot! If the heroine trips and falls and makes a
fool of herself in the first scene, use that not just to show that
she's clumsy but to motivate her to take up Tae Kwon Do or ballet—or
when she's lying there on the ground, she sees the package left by
Beware of Backstory:
waste the first chapter on a retelling of all that has happened
before. "Exposition is ammunition"—reveal it when it needs to be
revealed, when the reader is asking for it. That is, don't tell the
reader the answer before she's had reason to ask the question.
The Power of Point of View:
revising, be analytical about how your choice of point of view
affects the discovery of the characters and the portrayal of the
world and their perceptions. Can you show the heroine's blind spot
or let the reader know the hero has a secret (but not what it is)?
Can you show that she is especially curious, or that he sees life as
a series of battles? Try to stay in one point of view long enough so
that the reader can truly experience the world from this character's
perspective—this might mean the entire scene is in one
The Virgin Reader:
When you've got the first chapters done, ask for
a read by a "virgin reader," one who knows nothing about the story.
As she reads, she should tell you what she's experiencing, what
questions she has, what emotions she feels, where she's confused,
where she's intrigued. At the end of each chapter, have her tell you
what she knows... and what she only suspects... and what she's
asking. Does she know what you want her to know? Is she suspecting
what you want her to suspect? (For example, "I don't think Brad's
the hero, even though Sarah is in love with him.") Is she asking the
questions you want her to ask? (For example, "Is Brad going to take
advantage of her? Is Jake going to get mad at her?")
Revise and Reinvent:
If the chapters don't get the response you want,
reinvent them. Step back and analyze each scene. What is your
purpose in the opening scene? What impression do you want the reader
to have of the character? What do you want the reader to understand
about the world and the issues of the book? You might have to
rewrite the opening altogether to accomplish these purposes—but
that's good. This is your only chance with the editor. She won't
give you the benefit of the doubt.
The Brink of Change:
opening act should show the world and the protagonist on the brink
of significant change. Make sure the characters have reason to take
on the plot, whether that motivation comes from the immediate goal
("I want to go to the homecoming dance with Brad.") or is forced by
the initial plot events ("I want to survive this kidnapping!").
Alicia Rasley is a
16-year member of Romance Writers of America and Indiana RWA, a
writing teacher, and a RITA-award winning Regency author. She
is also the