Article of The Month

On the Brink: Turbo-charge Your Opening

Copyright 2000 by Alicia Rasley

If the 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 since.

I'll be 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".

So I'm 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! :)

Let's start 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!).


She wants to know you can write a coherent sentence, paragraph, page, chapter-- that is, that your prose style isn't going to drive her crazy.


She 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 plot.


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.


She 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 here.

External Conflict:

She 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).


She 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.

So....before you start:

Here are some things to consider as you revise your opening for greater power:

Purposes of Opening Chapters:
1. Set up situation.
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.
4. 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.
8. Hint at internal conflict– maybe show it affecting the protagonist's actions.
9. Set up the interpersonal dynamics. How do these characters relate to each other? What are their issues?
10. Pose the major story questions.
11. Bring on the antagonist and his/her initiating action.
12. Start the protagonist's action/reaction.
13. Hint 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.

Invent Events:
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 the villain.

Beware of Backstory:
Don't 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:
In 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 pov.

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:
This 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 13-year member of RWA, a writing teacher, and a RITA-award winning Regency author. She teaches at Painted Rock Writers Colony.

Copyright 2000 by Alicia Rasley

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Go to previous articles:

Tightening the Sagging Middle

Sharks in the Water: Old Scams in the New Millennium

The Publishing Journey

Lest Ye Be Judged: Contest Judging for Writers

Setting and Character Interactions

Developing the Dark Moment

The Promise of the Hot Premise

Outline Your Novel in Thirty Minutes

Subtle and Sensual

Plotting Without Fears

Structuring the Story

End Thoughts

Details, Details

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