(On Writing) The Bad Beginning II: The Return of the Dreaded Opening Chapter

“Sometimes the questions are complicated and the answers are simple.”

–  Dr. Seuss

 

So two months ago—to the date, coincidentally—I posted on the subject of how difficult it is, when writing a novel, to concoct its first chapter:

“I need to find a good way to kick off the story. And no matter what events I run through my mind to launch it, I just can’t think of one that really grabs peoples’ interests. Nothing unique. Over the years, I’ve re-written the first chapter probably five or six times. And—almost six re-writes and four years later—I’M STILL UNHAPPY WITH IT.”

I ended on a somewhat gloomy note, saying how I could only hope for some random spark of inspiration to hit me where all of the pieces would finally fall into place. I’ve been waiting for that for a solid eight weeks now.

And I think I finally have something.

Correction: I don’t just have something. I have the thing, the exact set of puzzle pieces I’ve been trying to find for years. Or at least, I think I do.

At the very least, I have something like what I mentioned I was hoping to find: something that grabs peoples’ interests, and is unique to this particular story.

But, I’m not so selfish of a blogger that I would use WordPress to only announce my good news to my meager crowd of readers. I figure I’ll comment on this subject a bit more, to try and dissect what I believe makes up a good opening chapter, now that I finally (believe I) have one.

 

Essential Ingredients for a Good Opening Chapter:

  1. We meet at least one character, preferably the main one
  2. More importantly, we get to know said main character, and what makes them unique
  3. The tone is consistent with the rest of the book
  4. Something happens to the main character to, by the literal definition, start the story
  5. Ends with closure, but enough suspense that we must keep reading

 

What I imagine you all saying to yourselves right now: “This boy is a genius! Expound on your knowledge, oh wizard of the written word.”

What you’re probably really saying: “This kid doesn’t know what he’s talking about, is that episode of Big Bang Theory still on?”

As a blogger (and as a writer) I’m forced into a mode of narrow optimism, however, so I’ll assume you want to know more about what I listed above. I’ll explain them best through examples from an author who’s not only published, but successful: Rick Riordan, and his novel The Lightning Thief.

Take a look at that opening chapter, if you so desire. What do you find?

  1. We meet the main character, Percy Jackson, who introduces himself and gives basic info like his age, current surroundings, and present circumstances.
  2. We get to know Percy, and what makes him unique. We learn he has dyslexia, ADHD, has been kicked out of school every year due to strange accidents, and has a mysterious connection with Greek mythology (though we don’t know what, yet. There’s the suspense I mentioned!)
  3. The tone is consistent with the rest of the book. I think The Lightning Thief is a perfect example of this, because more often than not—especially with YA books—tone is what keeps someone reading. Percy’s sarcastic, witty, and informal (but detailed) descriptions of the people and events that develop around him is what made me want to keep reading, back when I started this book. I loved how he described Mrs. Dodds as “someone who wore a black leather jacket, even though she was fifty years old. She looked mean enough to drive a Harley straight into your locker.” Or else talking about the field trip he’s on: “I know—it sounds like torture. Most Yancy Academy trips were.” These tell us that this isn’t going to be an uptight high fantasy tale with formal dialogue and cardboard characters. And might I say, this book in particular shies away from those stereotypes about as much as any fantasy book can.
  4. Something happens to Percy to start the story: he gets attacked by a Fury because Hades believes Percy stole Zeus’s master bolt. Again, a great example of how to start a story. I can’t comment too much on it…in short, the events unfold from there. Picking such a point for my own story is (was) so difficult because of how simple of a task it is.
  5. Ends with closure, but suspense: Well, The Lighting Thief does indeed. After the attack, we’re left wondering why and how it happened, just as Percy is, but the end of chapter one is Mr. Brunner assuring Percy it was all his imagination. This caps off the action while leaving the reader wanting more.

Well, I do believe I’ve spoken on this subject long enough. Now that I’ve found my perfect idea for how I want my first chapter to unfold, I need to start writing it.

Or re-writing it, I should say.

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