This year, I have left behind the characters who populated the series that I’ve been writing for several years. I’m embarking on a voyage to a new world, with a crew who is brand new to me. It’s fun and thrilling to be writing something completely new, but starting from scratch is also much harder than continuing a series.
The first chapter of any book, but especially the first book in a series, has to be gripping. Win a reader and they could go on to follow your characters for a long time. I’m now on the fifth major rewrite of my first chapter, and in honor of that I thought I’d share some DOs and DON’Ts that I’ve learned the hard way, with examples of excellent series openings from successful YA authors.
DO get to the story quickly rather than delving into too much description.
When your readers know nothing, it’s tempting to want to share everything you can about their backstory and the world they inhabit. But readers want to be immersed in a world, unaware that they are learning a character’s quirks and how their world functions because they’re more involved in the drama unfolding. I love Marissa Meyer’s Cinder, the first book of The Lunar Chronicles, because she doesn’t waste time introducing Cinder and Prince Charming and throwing them together right away. She hooked me by the end of the first chapter, and I kept reading until I finished the series.
DON’T jump into the middle of an action sequence from the first page. (Most of the time.)
Some authors take the advice of getting to the story quickly to mean that they throw their main character into the middle of a battle, or struggling to survive, from the first sentence. Remember, before your protagonist faces big danger, the reader has to care if they live or die. There are examples of stories that start “In Medias Res” (in the middle of things) but those done well are rare. If you’re a new author, stick to a simpler scene that lets us get to know the character.
DO give readers a picture of what the main characters look like.
While no reader wants to read pages about the protagonist’s long, flowing locks of golden hair, they do want to have a sketch of the characters in their minds. This is a tidbit that I’ve ignored in the past, and readers and agents have called me on it time and again. For an example of an author who puts a riveting picture in your mind from page one, check out We Were Liars by E. Lockhart. When the main character says of her family, “The Sinclairs are athletic, tall and handsome…Our smiles are wide, our chins are square, and our tennis serves aggressive” we can picture the protagonist and her family’s appearance and personality in one swoop.
DON’T start your story with your character waking up.
I saw this tidbit in several reputed literary agents’ pet peeves. Starting your story at the start of your main character’s day makes logical sense – to everyone. Readers, editors, and agents alike have read this kind of opening so many times that it has become cliche.
DO end your first chapter with a teaser that invites the reader to turn the page, NOW.
No matter how brilliant of a writer you are, it takes time to get a reader to invest emotionally in your character’s life. The first chapter is about piquing the reader’s interest, but it will take longer than that to earn their sympathy and empathy. With that in mind, a little mystery or promise of something fascinating to come goes a long way toward keeping readers moving forward with your story. Maggie Stiefvater does an excellent job of this in The Raven Boys. She introduces the protagonist, Blue, as a girl from a family with supernatural gifts. They’ve always predicted that she will kill her true love. The chapter ends with a promise from one of the characters that this is the year that she’ll fall in love. Will I continue reading? Hell, yes!
DON’T be afraid to change your first chapter, even if it impacts the rest of your story.
I know from experience that there is nothing more daunting for a writer than making a change to the first chapter that ripples through the rest of the book you’ve written (or in some cases, the series). But taking the time to make the opening perfect is an investment that will pay you back in spades. If readers aren’t hooked, they’ll never have the opportunity to see how great your writing gets by chapter 6. So grit your teeth and make it perfect, consequences be damned.
There are few things more difficult to do, or more critical to your success as an author, than writing an outstanding first chapter. But when you get it exactly right, the momentum can carry you through the rest of the book, and even the rest of the series. Readers will forgive a crappy chapter 32, but they will never read past a weak chapter 1.