Thursday, November 12, 2020

The Promise of the First Chapter

By Chris Eboch, @Kris_Bock

Part of the How They Do It Series 

JH: A novel's first chapter makes a promise to readers about the book. Chris Eboch shares tips on how writers can keep those promises.

Chris is the author of over 60 books for children, including nonfiction and fiction, early reader through teen. Learn more or read excerpts at or visit her page on Amazon or Amazon UK. (For other countries click here.) Check out her writing tips at her Write Like a Pro! blog.

Chris writes for adults under the name Kris Bock. Her Furrever Friends Sweet Romance series features the employees and customers at a cat café. Watch as they fall in love with each other and shelter cats. Get a free 10,000-word story set in the world of the Furrever Friends cat café when you sign up for the Kris Bock newsletter. Learn more at or visit Kris Bock’s Amazon US page or Amazon UK page. (For other countries click here.)

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Take it away Chris… 

You’ll hear it over and over again — opening lines are important. Your opening makes a promise about the rest of the story, article, or book. It tells readers what to expect, setting the stage for the rest of the story to unfold — and hopefully hooking their interest.

What You Promise

The first scene should identify your story’s genre. This can be trickier than it sounds. Say it’s a romance, but the main character doesn’t meet the love interest until later. Can you at least suggest her loneliness or desire for romance? (And get that love interest in there as soon as possible!)

Maybe you’re writing a story involving magic, time travel, ghosts, or a step into another dimension, but you want to show the normal world before you shift into fantasy. That’s fine, but if we start reading about a realistic modern setting and then halfway through magic comes out of nowhere, you’ll surprise your reader — and not in a good way. Your story will feel like two different stories clumsily stitched together.

If you’re going to start “normal” and later introduce an element like magic or aliens, try to hint at what’s to come. Maybe the main character is wishing that magic existed — that’s enough to prepare the reader. In my novel for ages 9+, The Genie’s Gift, an early draft didn’t introduce magic until chapter 5, when the heroine is on her quest. In revisions, I introduced magic in the opening paragraph:
Anise knew the candy must be enchanted. The genie cook always put some kind of protection on the food, so no one could eat it until he said so. Would it stick her jaws together so she couldn’t speak? Turn her lips and tongue blue? Taste like camel dung? But Anise didn’t want to wait until after the wedding. She was hungry now.
For this book, the title and cover help establish the setting anyway, but I still don’t want to make readers wait, especially impatient kids. For other genres, the title and cover may not be quite as clear-cut, and people using certain e-readers might not even see the cover or remember much about a book they bought some time ago. Give them a reminder right away. 

(Here's more on Three Things “The Intern” Can Teach Us About Keeping Our Story Promise)

When and Where

Your opening should also identify the story’s setting. This includes when and where we are, if it’s historical or set in another country or world. In my middle grade mystery, The Eyes of Pharaoh, I identify the historical setting with a tagline and then follow with a scene that is clearly not contemporary America:
Waset, Egypt
Year Seven, Day Five of the First Month of Summer
in the reign of Pharaoh Ramses the Third

Seshta ran. Her feet pounded the hard-packed dirt street. She lengthened her stride and raised her face to Ra, the sun god. Her ba, the spirit of her soul, sang at the feel of her legs straining, her chest thumping, her breath racing.

In a contemporary story, you may not identify a specific city, but the reader should have a feel for whether this is inner-city, small-town, suburban, or whatever. Whispers in the Dark, a romantic suspense written as Kris Bock, opens to establish both the unusual setting and the "fish out of water" challenge for the main character:
What had I gotten myself into?

I closed my eyes. Yes, I was driving, but a moment of distraction seemed safe enough, since I hadn’t seen another car in half an hour. Even the jackrabbits and rattlesnakes were hiding in the shade, leaving the road clear of everything but rocks and ruts.

I was starting an adventure. I had to remind myself of that—an adventure. I wanted to be here. I wanted to get away from the city, the classroom and office, the people. You couldn’t get much farther away than this, a tiny cluster of seven-hundred-year-old ruins in the Four Corners area of the Southwest. I had found the middle of nowhere.

As I had wanted, I reminded myself. 

(Here's more on Painting Your Story World)

Who and What’s Up

Your opening pages should focus on your main character. You may find exceptions to this rule, but your readers will assume that whoever is prominent in the opening pages is the MC. Switching can cause confusion. Establish your point of view early, and if you’ll be switching, don’t wait too long to make the first switch. In novels, typically you want to show your alternate point of view in the second chapter and then switch back and forth with some kind of regular rhythm.

And of course, you want some kind of challenge or conflict in your opening. This doesn’t have to be the main plot problem — you may need additional set up before your main character takes on that challenge or even knows about it. But try to make sure that your opening problem relates to the main problem. It may even lead to it.

In Coffee and Crushes at the Cat Café, a sweet romance, Kari finds love while opening a new business, a cat café. The opening sentences introduce both leads, the place, and a challenge.
Kari studied the muscular, tattooed man with the shaved head. Yummy. Not her type, but still, she could see why some women liked bad boys. “You don’t look like a barista.” Whoops, had she said that out loud?

One corner of his mouth twitched. “You don’t look like a business owner.”

Fair enough. Growing her hair out had not, as she’d hoped, helped her look older than her 24 years.

She smiled. “I guess we’re even.”

He glanced around the empty room. Kari followed his gaze. Was he wondering if they would actually get the cat café open in a few weeks? At the moment, they had no furniture, no decor, and no cats. 

(Here's more on Have You Met Ted? Introducing Characters)

The Fast Start

So, an opening should introduce many elements of the story. Yet you can’t take too long to set the scene, or your readers may lose interest. You want to start in a moment of action, where something is changing, and cut the background. But don’t rush things — take a little time to set up the situation, so it makes sense and we care about the characters and what’s happening to them.

Fast, but not too fast. How do you find the balance?

You can test your opening by seeing how much you can cut. What if you delete the first sentence, the first paragraph, the first page? Does the story still make sense? Does it get off to a faster start? What if you cut the whole first chapter, or several chapters? If you can’t cut, can you condense?

On the other hand, if your beginning feels confusing or rushed, you might want to try starting earlier in the story. Try setting up a small problem that grabs the reader’s attention, luring them in until you can get to the main problem.

The inciting incident — the problem that gets the story going — should happen as soon as possible, but not until the moment is ripe. The reader must have enough understanding of the character and situation to make the incident meaningful. Too soon, and the reader is confused. Too late, and the reader gets bored first.

Options for Fast Starts:
  • Start in the action, at a moment of change. Then work in the back story.
  • Start with two people on the page.
  • Start in the middle of a fight or other conflict.
  • Start with a cliffhanger — something powerful about to happen.
  • Start with a small problem that leads to the big problem, or is an example of the main problem.

Christmas isn’t the same since Diane’s kids grew up and her husband died – so when her high school sweetheart comes back to town, maybe it’s time for some cozy new holiday traditions.
Old traditions or a new life?

Diane had a great marriage and a wonderful life raising two daughters and a grandson. That ended when her husband died too young. Now she’s 53 and her grown children are encouraging her to slow down and do less – but she wants more. She starts planning for a new career by arranging a photo shoot at the cat café her daughters run. Unfortunately, the cats don’t want to cooperate.

Rick loved Diane in high school, but he chose to travel the world while she settled down with another man. Now he’s back for a visit, but he’s not planning to stay – even if Diane still tugs at him. He’ll help her figure out how to photograph animals, he’ll even help her get what she wants from life, and then he’ll say goodbye.

Rick temps Diane to quit her job, sell her house, and travel. But she can’t leave the people she loves so dearly, the family that might still need her just a little bit. Diane tempts Rick to quit his wandering ways, but he can’t simply step into the hole left by her husband’s death. As the weeks pass from Thanksgiving to Christmas, the holiday season brings out complicated emotions.

Can Diane and Rick find a way to make a new life together while holding onto the best parts of the past? They'll need more than attraction and affection. They might even need a Christmas miracle.

The Furrever Friends Sweet Romance series features the workers and customers at a small-town cat café, and the adorable cats and kittens looking for their forever homes. Each book is a complete story with a happy ending for one couple (and maybe more than one rescued cat). These sweet romances will leave you with the warm feeling of cuddling a purring cat.

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