The Anatomy of Chapter One

Audrey Wick: There’s something magical about a book’s first sentence. As writers, we get to control that magic by creating a line we hope is memorable and catchy to hook readers enough to keep reading.

We also hope that our opening chapter fits that bill. We aim for a smooth and exciting chapter, one that will draw readers in until they commit to our story.

I debuted as a novelist in 2018 with two full-lengths, so in preparation for my third, I had some idea of what needed to happen in the opening. However, even though I was proud of my first chapter, something wasn’t right with the manuscript.

And my editor found it in the first sentence:

“The landscaping outside the home Valerie Perry recently inherited from her grandmother had been picture-perfect … until today.”

In my mind, it was spunky and fun, setting a playful tone I wanted to carry into the relationship that would unfold between my hero and heroine.

Audrey’s first two novels were in the women’s fiction genre, so those heroines’ point of view was a given. But when this book started with a female voice, it instantly threw me. This manuscript was the first in a series about Texas brothers who own a barbeque restaurant. Since that central story will be marketed on the cover and on the description blurb, the opening scene needed to meet readers’ expectations.

We needed to reimagine the opening from the male’s perspective, starting in the place that was central to his identity and set up his goal:

“Hutch squared off with Cole across a table in the dining area of their family business.”

Audrey: Of course, changing the point of view meant more than changing the opening line. It was a springboard for other changes that needed to occur in the chapter.

There was an initial sense of frustration because this was a whole new way to look at the story. But changes to chapter one brought the rest of the storyline into clearer focus, creating a stronger anchor than I originally had. Plus, the scene I scrapped as the story’s opening was still able to have significant placement after.

Julie: Ultimately, Audrey’s changes involved these general areas, which should help any writer struggling with troubleshooting a first chapter:

Start in media res, or in the action. Readers want to dive in, so meet that expectation by placing them a few minutes before the inciting incident—that positive or negative event that sets into motion a series of actions and emotions the characters weren’t planning to deal with.
Don’t frontload the backstory. Characters have a past, but reveal it in small layers throughout the first half of the book: during moments of reflection or decision, when a new character is introduced, when your protagonist answers questions, during action—basically at moments when knowing about their past matters the most.
Raise the stakes by the end of this first chapter. Since stakes provide a reason for the reader to continue reading, there must be enough challenges at play—personally, publicly, morally, romantically—to sustain a story.
The most important detail that will hook readers is how they relate to the protagonist. Description isn’t as important as opinion—let that character’s voice hog the spotlight!
Both the author and the editor should feel comfortable with the changes. Positive collaboration makes a better final product, and readers ultimately benefit from that.

Audrey: Having Julie work with me on these changes made all the difference. I felt confident about my new first chapter because of the revisions. I’m eager to see readers’ reactions to the new opening chapter, which is available in On the Market through Tule Publishing in July 2019. It truly was a teamwork approach to starting the story off right.

Audrey Wick is an author with Tule Publishing and a full-time English professor at Blinn College in Texas. Her writing has also appeared in college textbooks published by Cengage Learning and W. W. Norton. Wick believes the secret to happiness includes lifelong learning and good stories—but travel and coffee help. She has journeyed to more than 20 countries and sipped coffee in every one. See photos on her website and follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @WickWrites.

Julie Sturgeon is the owner of consulting community for authors. As a development editor, she’s worked with more than 300 romance titles, many of those with Tule Publishing and Crimson Romance (Simon and Schuster). She holds a degree in journalism from Indiana University and has bylines in a majority of business-to-business publications. She’s also never met a pair of eyeglasses she didn’t like.

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