Hi gaia! What's your opinion on opening with dialogue? And can you do a post on writing a strong opening chapter?
Sure thing! First off, let me start with telling you that I don’t worry about my first chapter till I am done with the first draft. Get the whole story out. Why? Because in your first draft, likely, the first chapter is an infodump, full of exposition and back story. It will be completely edited out and rewritten later.
The first chapter will be the hardest thing you write. This is the part of your book that will have to hook your reader and suck them into the story. You can open with dialogue, if you like, but it’d better be an amazing line. So…
How to write a captivating first chapter
What’s the function of the first chapter? The first chapter needs to hook the reader, ideally introducing your voice, world, and characters.
1-Avoid infodumps. This is imperative. Infodumps are long paragraphs of exposition where the author “explains” back story, characters and their relationships, and conflict. NO.
2-Start with a dynamic scene. Start in the middle of action, conflict, awkwardness. Titillate the curiosity of your reader. Engage, amuse, scare. Show what you can do.
Notice, this does NOT need to be “THE” conflict, it could be “A” conflict, a sticky situation of some sort.
3-Use the dynamic scene to SHOW the personality of the characters and their relationships.
4-Edit till you drop. The first page of the first chapter is the most important part of your book. Most agents and publishers (and potential readers) will stop there. They have piles and piles of manuscripts to go through, they are not looking for a reason to keep reading, but for a reason to stop. Don’t give it to them. Engage them, rapture them, blow their minds. You will rewrite the first chapters over and over. You will swap it, tweak it, etc… Sometimes I get stuck on the first chapter for days. Later I get back to it and trash it. It’s OKAY. This will be a work in progress.
Great opening lines from the Tumblr’s Writer community (that I received through the “My edit” posts):
-I didn’t mean to kill my father.
- “Wanna fuck?”
Terrible openers in general (because they have been overdone, but I’ve never received one from the Tumblr community): the main character wakes up in their bed and as they get ready for the day they think about the story of their life.
Opening scenes from some of my favorite books:
-I’ll Give you the Sun by Jandy Nelson: Noah running for his life in a forest, chased by bullies
-Six of Crows: gang deal in the middle of the night
I had a very hard time with the first chapter of my first book because at the beginning of my series the characters are very young (nine!), but my readership is adult (and very smart 13 yo and up). So, what to do? How to engage my readers?
An Italian Adventure: a bunch of nine-year-olds find a porn mag. Yikes.
This is how it starts:
Chapter 1: Blame it on Nico
On that Tuesday afternoon in the April of 1987, I had no idea that I was finally about to shed some light on the mystery of sex. Indeed adults had made it clear that sex, just like God, was a topic of the utmost importance yet never to be discussed. Questions were received with trepidation if not outright embarrassment, and the only answer so far was that one day everything would make sense.
It didn’t, yet.
Peo, Flavio, and I spilled out of the church with the rest of the kids. The sky was a promise of the summer to come, and the blackbirds celebrated it from the poplars and cypress surrounding the cornfields. Hoping to inhale freedom and spring, I was disappointed by the stench of the new road: a black, sticky umbilical cord that connected the church to the small town of Arese.
Flavio nodded toward the countryside, where the dust of a dirt-path glowed in the sun. “Wanna go for a recon?”
He was the tallest in our class, while I was the shortest of all the almost nine-year-olds in school, probably in all of Italy.
I answered, “Why not,” and Peo nodded. He never spoke much.
We always spent the afternoon playing together after Catechism, which we had to endure to maintain our good-standing position in Jesus’ fastidious notebook of sins. I would have never suspected that I was about to add to it big time.
We called ourselves the trio but we really were the better version of the A-team. Flavio was Hannibal, poised, charming, in charge. Peo was Mr. T, muscular and gruff. Because my older sister Viola insisted in beating the hell out of me, I feared nothing (at least in daylight), which had gained me my Howling-Mad-Murdock’s name. I mussed up my hair to revive the spikiness Mom insisted in trying to tame. I hoped the green eyes behind my much-hated glasses gave me the crazed look I was going for.
Following the path cutting through young corn and poppies, we rounded a bend and spotted Nico, squatting on his heels by a big poplar, poring over something on the ground.
What the heck?
Nico the Thug, as I had taken to call him in my head, had moved to our small northern town of Arese from Sicily a few months before. He was always by himself, it looked like he didn’t even try to make friends. It wasn’t clear to me whether his hostile attitude was cause or consequence of the troubles that he seemed to slide into constantly, every time emerging more aggressive and isolated. The aura of doom that surrounded him suited his gypsy looks, which would have been remarkable if not for the unsettling smile of the unrepentant.
Nico heard us and lifted his gaze. “Guys! Guys! Check this out!”
Nico the Thug wanted to share something? What sort of incredible happening could have caused him to transcend his angry, unfriendly self?
We looked at each other and Flavio stepped ahead. “What?”
Nico picked up his treasure, it was some sort of magazine. “Look! Look what I found!”
He held the journal up in front of his face as we approached. Our jaws dropped, it was a porn magazine.
What did I do?
-I introduced the context (time: April 1987, place: Italy), but I did not infodumped it on the reader.
-The hook: something that deals with sex is about to happen. Given that the characters in this scene are nine this is mightily strange.The hook is in the first line. I have total respect for asexual people (and I dream, one day, to build a book about an asexual main character) but this series is likely not for them. It is full of feels, and it revolves a lot about relationships and sexuality. Sorry, asexual friends.
-Description: a brief description of rural Northern Italy at the beginning of summer sets the stage. Hopefully, the readers can see it in their head.
-The characters: three kids, and shady Nico. Hopefully, at this stage the reader thinks that the main character, Lee, is a boy. She really is a kickass tomboy and bibliophile, but the readers figures that out by the end of the chapter.
Would you keep reading? I hope so. Good luck with your first chapter ^_^
Who am I to give you advice?
I am Gaia B Amman, the author of the Italian Saga (#TIS), a series taking place in gorgeous Italy, and talking about everything I was told is impolite to talk about ;)
I am an indie author. I wrote, designed, published, and marketed all my books on my own. All first three novels in the series were number one releases on Amazon in their genre. Number four will be released on November 1st (Squeeeee!)
Available as audio, ebooks, and paperbacks.
Why do I do this?
Because it was incredibly difficult to learn everything I needed to make my books successful, and I believe that no one else can write your book. So, I try to pay it forward with free edits and posts on writing. It spreads the word about my own books, and it helps other writers <3
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