Writers' Treasure Creative Writing Tips The Best Way of Writing a Compelling Opening Chapter

The Best Way of Writing a Compelling Opening Chapter

“Help!” someone cried out. “Get me out of this! My leg’s fractured! Is anyone there? Help!”

“Who was that?” Victor said.

A terrible noise came from a mansion. Hammering on doors could be heard. Screams echoed in the area.

“Sounds like he’s in trouble,” Dave replied, worried.

“Fractured? How? Why?”

“Let’s find out.”

Imagine what you’d feel if you came across these opening paragraphs in a book.

You’d be interested, certainly. You’d want to know what person was crying for help, and why. You’d want how his leg came to be fractured. You’d want to know who the heck Victor and Dave are. And you’d want to know why they were at this place and what they were doing there. In short, you’d want to read on.

And this is precisely what reaction you have in mind for the reader after reading the first few lines. You want to read on! A story must have a superb compelling opening – that’s the rule. Otherwise, as I told you in Why You Should Write a Compelling Opening Chapter, the reader will close the book.

So what’s the summary of this section? To write a compelling opening chapter you must first write the compelling opening lines. (The first page in other words). Only then the reader will take a further look in the first chapter.

Let’s delve deeper in why these opening lines (the ones with which I have started the post) have been proven to work. If one looks closely, there are some elements hidden there. Elements which have been used by famous authors. They are…

1) Dialogue

Starting a story with dialogue helps. It helps greatly. It’s better than the old “Once upon a time, a farmer lived on the hill.” It’s better than “Raju was struggling.” It’s better than “John and Richard were very naughty.” It’s better than “The sea shined and sparked as they left it.” It’s better than all of them.

Why, though?

Because it draws in the reader and makes him interested.

When you compare dialogue and narrative, you’ll find out that by and large readers prefer dialogue. Yes, there is a thing such as too much dialogue, but when starting a story, dialogue is always one of the preferable options.

Now, of course with every case there are rules attached. This is no exception. You can’t just write some sloppy dialogue (like How are you doing) and say “I started it with dialogue.” It has to be good. It has to be interested. It has to show the personality of the speaker, and be short and snappy. Above all, it must not bore the reader.

So this was the first element. Notice that the first word in the story was above was “Help”, which was dialogue, yes, but something else. Which is…

2) Call to unfold the opening (in other words, action)

A good story begins with not action, but the scene before the action. It creates a growing sense of fear and dread if you use it carefully. As I said before, there is a thing such as too much dialogue. If you just have your characters talking and laughing with each other, well – you’ve mirrored real life, but after all, this is fiction, and your reader’s dozing off already. Wake him/her up with some action!

But beginning stories with action-packed scenes is not a good idea, since the reader has no idea who the characters are and doesn’t care a bit about them. Therefore – inject action into the dialogue! Make one of your characters say he’s going to do a daring task, or something like that. Then, before the reader’s “don’t-carishness” kicks in, quickly explain why that particular thing is so important.

And so… you’ve got your reader hooked. Mission accomplished if you handle it well.

3) Depict struggle and conflict

We all know that without conflict stories would become boring. We would hate to read them. We would hate to read about the great heroes that reach their goal without any struggle, without any conflict.

And oh… I think you are the same.

So what do you have to do? You have to depict struggle and conflict. Keep it short, though. Remember that the reader doesn’t know about the characters yet. Keep him in the dark first. Be vague in describing the struggle.

But at the same time, tell the reader that struggles and conflicts are definitely abound in your story. Illustrate it with a few lines. Short and snappy are the magic words.

And there you have it… another reason why the reader will continue reading!

4) Done all that? Got the reader’s attention? Now take hold of it with a stunning plot (and characters)

If you’ve done the above correctly, you should now have got the reader’s attention. All you have to do now is to keep hold of it.

You roll your eyes. “Okay, boy, easy for you to say. How exactly?”

I’m going to tell you how.

Think of a stunning plot. Create superb memorable characters. Write in a compelling manner. Do not ramble for even a second. Keep depicting conflict. Hurt the main character. Flaw him/her. Make his goal memorable, but impossible to get. Write a superb ending and leave some loose ends still unwrapped. To mirror real life.

OK… I know all that is hard to do. Heck, even I find it impossible to do many times. But the purpose of Schoolboy Author is… to help you in fiction writing. A blog written by a kid with few experiences but writing knowledge. Let’s see how hard it is.

That’s all for today, to give your scroll-bar a rest.

P.S. – If you don’t know, this is the second part of a tutorial on How to Write the Best Opening Chapter. Subscribe for free by RSS or email for more. And feel free to have your say in the comments below.

6 thoughts on “The Best Way of Writing a Compelling Opening Chapter”

  1. (Wow. Okay, I just finished this comment, and it is sooo long – I’m sorry. You got me thinking a lot!)

    While dialogue can work for a compelling opening, I don’t agree that it’s the best way to begin. Not always, anyway. Some writers do it well, but I don’t think it deserves the number one spot on your advice list to all – especially beginning – writers. Agent Nathan Bransford has an interesting post on why it can work, and why it sometimes doesn’t. His readers are divided on the issue – some love it, some loathe it, most think it depends on each individual example.

    Also, one of the reasons you listed to support your #2 point could also be used to argue against opening with dialogue – you don’t know the speaker at all, don’t know anything about the context of his life (or is it a her?), and therefore, you could cause both confusion and don’t-carishness.

    As far as beginning in the midst of action or not, well – that’s debatable, too. The best lesson on openings I ever experienced also came from Nathan Bransford’s blog. A while ago, he ran a contest for ‘best opening paragraph.’ With over 2,000 entries, he narrowed it down to ten finalists, then wrote a post on why he chose them. He also wrote about trends/similarities (not necessarily good ones) he noticed in all the entries. I learned SO MUCH from reading through the entries themselves – you really start to get a feel for what’s cliche, what is not as interesting/compelling as the author may think it is, and what stands out amid clutter. It was eye-opening for me.

    It occurs to me that advice reading “think of a stunning plot” (etc) is akin to ordering someone to bottle lightning in a jar. Meaning, it does nothing in the way of helping someone figure out how to do it, it just says ‘do it.’ Of course a writer wants to create a stunning plot, but they probably have difficulty conjuring stunning plots up out of thin air. Same goes for ‘create superb memorable characters’ and ‘write in a compelling manner.’ You need some how advice, especially if you’ve just told the reader you’re ‘going to tell them how.’

    Anyway, so sorry to ramble. You provoked my thoughts, and I just felt compelled to share them for some reason. I’m not trying to be critical in a mean way, not at all. Just thought I’d point out that there are differing opinions on these matters.

    Here are links to those blog posts I wrote about. The first is about beginning with dialogue; the second is a link to the paragraph contest results; the third is a link to the paragraph contest itself (where you can click on the comments and read all the entries, if you want to!). Hope you enjoy!

    http://blog.nathanbransford.com/2008/10/about-those-books-beginning-with.html

    http://blog.nathanbransford.com/2009/10/winner-is-and-thoughts-on-first.html

    http://blog.nathanbransford.com/2009/10/3rd-sort-of-annual-stupendously.html

    1. Wow! Thanks! Really yours is the first comment I’ve ever had on this blog. Thanks so much for posting such a meaningful comment. I like it that my post provoked to you such a reaction. I want discussion after all!

      And now for what you said…

      Regarding dialogue, as you said, it’s a personal preference. I like it. Some people don’t. Personally I don’t like beginnings which tell the reader all about the character or the plot. Makes me sleepy. The Alex Rider books by Anthony Horowitz begin by describing a character who’s about to die at the end of the chapter. I personally don’t like it. After all – the main character of the books is Alex, and so some dialogue with him and another character would liven things up!

      About point #2, yes I’m afraid I agree. I had a fleeting feeling when I wrote that section, as if I wasn’t completely sure whether this was right or that. But in every argument there are two sides. What seemed more probable to me, I wrote that. I agree with your point, though.

      As for action, again that’s personal preference. I really hate it when stories begin with action. I mean, I don’t know anything about the plot! Nothing about the characters! Why should I be interested? That’s just an example of reader ‘don’t-carishness’. Dialogue can tell the opening much better in my humble opinion.

      Well, as for that last stunning plot advice, er. I have half a mind to edit that now and write “I’m going to show you what you have to do” instead of “I’m going to show you how.” But then on second thoughts, I’ll leave it. I’m a beginner after all – and a kid – so sometimes it’s better to leave as they are. Thanks for the links to Nathan Bransford’s blog, very interesting reading.

      Once again, thanks for such a great comment, and constructive criticism. I’ll try to improve. And may I ask you one thing: stay around. Read some of my other posts. I need some traffic, friend. And I will continue this series. If you want the newer posts, you could always rel=”nofollow”>subscribe. Thanks once again, and I’ll check out your blog as well.

      Regards,
      Idrees

  2. Hey, there!

    Wow. I just checked out your ‘about’ page, and I had no idea you were only 13! I’m quite impressed at your ability to write and think and communicate so clearly at such a young age, and that you’ve taken such initiative to start this blog. Very, very cool.

    That said, you reacted to my comment with more maturity than some adults I’ve met. Thanks for not taking offense to my thoughts, I meant them in the best way – as a writer, I firmly believe in honesty, and good discussions, because I feel it can only improve my own work. Therefore, I try to treat others as I’d like to be treated – honest, but kind.

    I don’t like beginnings that tell the reader all about the character or the plot, either. Those tend to be slow and boring, like you said – I definitely prefer action or dialogue to that kind of opening! Whether you start with action, dialogue, or something else (like “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” or “Call me Ishmael…”), I think the thing that really makes or breaks the opening is the writing itself. If the writing is strong, you can probably get away with pretty much whatever, and the reader will feel compelled.

    As far as the ‘stunning plot’ advice, I think it’s fine the way it is. The tag afterwards balances it out, I think – the next paragraph, I mean, where you acknowledge how hard it is to do those things. I should have mentioned that before, I’m sorry. 🙂

    Nathan’s blog is consistently interesting, funny, and so, so informative. I’m so glad I discovered it, and hope it will be as much help to you as it has been to me!

    I plan to keep coming back; I have you in my “Blog Surfer” section, where your new posts show up in a feed along with my other blog friends. I’m surprised – and honored – to be your first commenter! 🙂 Take care, and keep doing what you’re doing. It’s great.

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