Writers' Treasure Fiction Writing Dos and Don’ts of Writing a Compelling Opening Chapter

Dos and Don’ts of Writing a Compelling Opening Chapter

Now we’ve learned why we should write a compelling opening chapter, my best way of beginning a compelling opening chapter, and what should be told and shown in the compelling opening chapter. Today, let’s learn the Dos and Don’ts of Writing a Compelling Opening Chapter.

All too often, writers have great content, but fail to perfect their craft, by putting a load of trash in the opening chapter. This is a sign to editors that you can write well, but you need to write tighter. How? Today we’ll look into that.

First, let’s imagine that you are an editor for a moment. A typical over-loaded, irritable editor. Two manuscripts have reached to you, along with many others. Somehow, you read these two first. You start reading the opening chapter of the first manuscript. Ten minutes later, you put it down with a cold rejection letter for the writer. Why? Because you weren’t impressed by the story. And that was because of various matters…

… such as the following things.

  1. The opening paragraph failed to draw you in. Too much blabbing about the characters and the scenery and the setting were enough for you to put the book down.
    2. The first page was not well-written. You found too many grammatical errors.
    3. You found the first page written well, but the author failed to draw you in with the characters or the plot.
    4. You didn’t like the method used to begin the story.
    5. You were feeling bad-tempered and moody, and…
    6. …better stop here before I depress everybody! There are a number of other reasons, though.

OK, point no. 4 and 5 are just personal preference, and sometimes luck has its hand. But point no.1, 2 and 3 a writer must perfect. Let’s assume that you, the editor, decided to read the opening of the second manuscript as well just to get it done.

You begin reading. … You are still reading. … Still! … “Something’s odd here. This is good.”

It’s not as if talent is at hand here – famous authors have confessed that they think their first drafts are rubbish. Any writer has good content. What is rare is real perfect craft. That’s the thing which distinguishes the ‘aspiring writers’ and those who have their book on the shelves. Craft. The most important word in the glossary of Getting Published.

Here’s why you thought the opening of the second manuscript was good:

  1. A strong killer captivating opening. It was as if someone had jolted you into attention from a slumber. You were quickly drawn in, quickly hooked. Anxious. Anxious to know why…
  2. Three-dimensional characters. In other words, characters who you thought could breathe. Who could live. And wow… you could care about them!
  3. A specific description of a strong plot. No subplots mentioned. Just the thing which was going to happen in the whole book.
  4. Something new – something unique. Genres come and genres die… but the weird thing is that it doesn’t quite work out that way. A writer with a unique story can always sell his books. That was the case with the second manuscript.
  5. Tight writing. No flowery adjectives. Nothing ‘Fancy Nancy’. Short sentences with not a single grammatical mistake or spelling error. In short, professional writing.
  6. Unique writing style and superb use of POV (Point of View).

In short, these are the do’s of writing compelling opening chapters. The don’ts are given above. But before you think this is the end and just I’m showing you what to do, wait. I’ll show how it’s done. In other words, elaborate.

The Question of “Well-Written”

Well-written does not mean trying to write like dead people. It does not mean trying to emulate their flowery writing style or attempting to sound like a Grammar Major. Mostly, what it means is: write clear, short sentences. Write professionally. Write strong verbs and as few adjectives as possible. Use easy-to-understand words. Do not become a Fancy Nancy.

  • As few adjectives as possible: Did you literally had scorn dripping from your mouth? Were you bored to painful death? Hmm, I don’t think so. Bottom line: use as few adjectives as possible.
  • Strong verbs: Why use “know” when you could say “discover”? It’s not your goal to be qualified and respectful. Jolt your readers into paying attention with strong verbs. Or your blog will be slashed, not just cut.
  • Unique writing style: This is a matter of perfection and being your own. Don’t try to sound or emulate famous authors. It won’t work. It won’t work at all. Be your own – it will build credibility and the editors will nod and won’t think you’re an amateur. After all, great writers have this characteristic:

A great writer’s voice is not one who emulates any other writer’s voice, but one which cannot be emulated. ~ Unknown

  • Short, clear sentences: Only an experienced writer can handle long sentences. The rest of us… they, while writing long sentences, lose the construction, make grammar writing mistakes, make mistakes with clauses, phrases… and so on. Short sentences is the answer. Jolt the reader. Into actually reading it. But remember. Like all things. Too much. And the reader. Will be confused.
  • Superb use of POV: POV stands for Point of View. The first person, the second person, the limited third person and the open third person are the POVs. Second person doesn’t work in fiction. The rest can all work. Try and experiment with whichever suits you. Then, stick with it.
  • No grammar and spelling mistakes: The dreaded one. Only one word comes to mind. Amateur. Please, pick up some book and relearn Spelling and Grammar. And beware of what Microsoft calls the contextual spelling error. It means that instead of writing ‘lose’, you type ‘loose.’ Right spelling, wrong context.

The Question of Characters and the Plot

What works for one writer, may not work for the other. So I can’t tell you how to write characters which are full of life and plot which is stunning. Take your time – do your research – and rely sometimes on luck. Who knows, so
metimes you can succeed accidentally. 😉

The Question of “Strong, Killer, Captivating Opening?”

Read my earlier post on the Best Way to Write a Compelling Opening Chapter, and then decide which method works best for you. Try and experiment.

Your task for today: Focus on cutting your adjectives. Yes, it will be painful. You love them. That’s okay; I do too. But they come in the way of telling a story. Fewer works best.

Have Your Say

1. Which dos and don’ts do you have in writing a compelling chapter?
2. Felt something which I wrote was wrong? Feel free to comment below!

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This post is a part of a series on “Writing Compelling Opening Chapters.” Click here for the series index.

5 thoughts on “Dos and Don’ts of Writing a Compelling Opening Chapter”

  1. First off, I must say that I have taken away lots of helpful information from the tips and guidance written within these posts, and others like it.
    Great job and bravo for putting it out there for the expessively challenged people such as my self.

    As a new writer, searching for good tips and directions to achieve a self respectable written piece, I keep finding similar errors/oversights within them from multiple sources.

    Below is my unprofessional rant.

    I may not have liked English classes in school, or write with absolute authority, but starting out on the creative writing portion of my life, it is annoying to read “his/her” instead of keeping it neutral, like “they” or “them”. This is prevalent when referring to the reader. There are so many times that it is largely assumed that the reader is male, and the main character is male. Even though I am male, it is annoying, to say the least, when the writer try’s to correct this in the middle of the article.
    I am not saying that this is done here, or much at all, but it would be nice to see/read that the author was conscious of this from the start, or at least was able to notice it when they re-read over the finished piece.
    By not doing so it is showing the reader that you are not editing your own piece and could care less about offending the female portion of readers and other writers.
    Aside from the “his/her” referencing, there is the dis-conjoined/deprecated sentence structure. You see this when the writing/editing was done in a rush. IE: From this post, “Who knows, so
    metimes you can succeed accidentally.”

    Hopefully what I have written is taken with a gran of salt, and reiterated to others, as a means of constructive criticism to help correct common place oversights within writing.
    So please respond and share as you see/read fit for writers everywhere.

    1. I’m not trying to be a jerk, but when someone complains about lack of editing and has a ton of spelling and/or grammar errors throughout a multiple paragraphed rant, I tend to roll my eyes.

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