How many of you check out the first paragraph when browsing a bookstand? When can’t overestimate the power of the first words in a novel and the importance of the first paragraph.
A friend was reviewing the start of my new book. I trust his judgement; he’s an avid reader. “I liked the first chapter,” he said, “but the opening paragraph just doesn’t draw me in—it gives no sense of place or context.” I agreed and went back to revise it. What is important is that I feel much happier about the opening now. It helps the main character as his arc unfolds, and it propels the plot. It starts with a quote that a senior staff member used when I began a new teaching position. So, here goes;
“Your best is never good enough,” were the words Sir Donald Bradford spoke at my orientation for the Foreign Service. Now, with retirement looming, I had to agree. I had given everything, but there was too much unfinished business and post-covid Europe was a diplomatic nightmare. Now, I needed time to myself and time to heal. With my camera as my companion, I explored The Mall, filled with tourists enjoying an ordinary day in picturesque London.
Lovers share a kiss by the steps. “Click.” Queen Victoria’s statue stares at them, stone-faced and not amused; very English. I lift my camera and to frame my next photo. Damn, a woman steps across the viewfinder, whispering as she passes me.
“You are being followed,” she says, “don’t turn around.”
My camera shakes as I try to focus on the bronze statue above me.
“Eighty-two feet high. If you enjoy royalty, try the Household Cavalry Museum at Hyde Park Barracks at 4pm. Ask for Reginald.”
[PS: This is only a drat. In the coming days I will play with this to get it right :-)]
Jack Colins couldn’t stay awake. His eyes closed, but were wide open when the bullet tore through his skull and into the far wall at the Baltimore Fire Station.
No, it’s not in my upcoming book. It’s the thought that I awoke to this morning and think it might work quite well for my next book, LOL!
Feedback just in from someone in Italy who read Chapter 1 of my new book: “Oh my goodness-I can’t wait to read more! You’ve left me hanging…”
This reaction is what I hoped for, since my first chapter does three important things;
- It puts the protagonist in context. In my new book, this is an ageing MI6 agent.
- The setting. In this case, the opening lines are in London and based on an experience I had there on my first, and only, visit.
- Conflict. Chapter 1 must create urgency. Something important is happening, threatening, or unresolved. The agent in question is given an assignment, but we are led to believe that he is being followed, discover that he isn’t, and then find out that he is. I hope my readers are led to feel the same doubt and confusion that he does. There you have it – context, setting and conflict, just like any front page news. All I need is a Literary Agent who agrees with this reader and helps me launch this thriller (inserts appropriate emoji and returns to finish his morning cup of English tea).
“Just read the first chapter of your book it has got me hooked, looking forward to it being published ASAP.” This email came in from a friend living in Australia; a little note of encouragement as I continue to search for the right literary agent for my new thriller. If you are also interested in reading chapter one (of 85) and giving some feedback, please message me at email@example.com .
A good question. When is the best time to introduce your main characters in your novel? I made a big mistake on this in my second novel—the draft did not feature the main character (the protagonist) and antagonist until later in Chapter 2 and Chapter 3. When I reworked the script to have these characters appear in Chapter 1, along with a strong hint of the conflict between them, it produced better tension and moved the plot along with more pace.
Definitions (from here):
The definition of a protagonist is basically “the main character”. Here is the Wikipedia definition:
“A protagonist (from Ancient Greek πρωταγωνιστής (protagonistes), meaning “player of the first part, chief actor”) is the main character in any story, such as a literary work or drama. The protagonist is at the center of the story, makes the key decisions, and experiences the consequences of those decisions.”
The Wikipedia definition of antagonist is the following:
An antagonist is a character whose motivations, goals, desires or opinions are opposed to those of the protagonist.
The important aspect in this alternative definition is the lack of hostility. Remember, I am in favor of tension to drive a story, but not in favor of (instant) trouble. Hope this helps your writing; it sure helped mine!
I was pleased with myself. Chapter One for my new novel read perfectly; at least I thought so. But I needed an independent critic – someone I trusted to be honest, even brutally honest, and give constructive feedback. Aha! I had the perfect person – my wife! She endured endless revisions of my first thriller and was keen to read my second. I was anticipating a great response to Chapter One. “Did you like it?” I asked. The reply was not what I expected.
“Well,” she replied, “I just could not get into it.”
Shock, horror. “Why not?”
“I dunno. It was just too technical. But, I was tired when I read it, so I will try again.”
There it is! She was tired. I am let off the hook; the chapter is good after all? I waited for her second take.
“No, it just doesn’t gel for me.”
“Damn!” What did I do wrong? I spend hours on this opener and now it has fallen flat. I need to really think hard about this; not rush it; give it another angle.
Hours later – days actually, and I had an idea; an approach that was based on human interaction and left out most of the technical details. “Here is a new Chapter One.”
“O.K.,” she said, “I’ll read it later.”
“What did you think?”
“Much better, and it drew my interest. It also reminded me of an event at one of your schools.”
I was relieved, but learned an important lesson, and thanked my best critic – my wife!