That First Chapter
I’ve just returned from the Historical Novel Society conference in Manchester where I gave a workshop on The First Chapter – how to hook your readers. We all know how important the opening chapter is and I’m sure I’m not the only writer to wrestle with it.
Taking a workshop is always a bit alarming to begin with. I knew eleven people had booked but there might be more. And – awful thought – would that include a fully-paid-up member of the Awkward Squad? It can happen. In the event, I had eighteen delightful people, including our very own Sarah Mallory – whom I’m sure didn’t need any instruction in the subject - but it was great to have her there.
We looked at five points which I thought were important:
a) Introduce the main characters and what’s at stake for them
b) Set up your plot lines
c) Make sure you have a number of hooks
d) Start at a point where something is about to happen
e) Get the story going immediately
The reader’s natural instinct is to become involved with the first character they meet and to become involved with his or her problems. It’s our job as writers to give them the sort of problems where they can do just that: a destitute heroine facing an uncertain future; a hero dangerously involved in spying against Napoleon, say. Both need a quest, something they need to learn during the course of the novel.
Then there’s plot. A lot of aspiring writers have problems with this. It is not the same thing as a series of events. Plot is where actions have consequences, frequently emotional. Miss Anne Elliot meets naval captain does not constitute a plot-line; however, Miss Anne Elliot re-meets naval captain to whom she was once engaged and whom she still loves is another matter! Clearly, there's some unfinished business here.
Several people in my workshop weren’t clear what ‘hooks’ were. A hook is something which leaves the reader gasping, ‘Oh my God, what’s going to happen now?’ Darcy denigrating Elizabeth at the Netherfield Ball is not, in itself, a hook. What makes it a hook is that Lizzie overhears him. Actions have consequences again.
My guess is that many of us have problems with points five and six. It’s all too easy to waffle on for several pages before getting on with the story. Jane Austen should be our guide here. She doesn’t open Pride and Prejudice with the back story of Mr Collins and the entail, she opens with the news that Netherfield Hall is being let to an eligible bachelor who has an even more eligible friend as a house guest; exciting news for a family with five unmarried daughters. Instantly, we are hooked.
My workshop went well. Everyone joined in and there was a lot of animated discussion. I emerged exhausted (taking a workshop can be draining emotionally) but also elated and, ultimately, re-energized.