Many years of journalist training, coupled with a modicum of propriety, make me wary of spelling out the following in full. But when it comes to the purpose of your first chapter, a little emphasis may be required. Here goes then: it is to make the reader give a f*£<.
Even after ghosting 60-plus books, I approach the first chapter of each one with mixed feelings. I am excited, since it generally indicates that I have enough interviews under my belt with the named author to finally get started at doing what I do best: writing. I also feel dread. I’m about to begin the process of agonising over how to get it just right. Oh, and I will also be very tired. Often, when I know I have this auspicious opening event coming up, I will dream opening paragraphs and then wake early in a panic lest I forget this incredible intro. (I always do).
What advice would I give to anyone who is at this stage now? Well, try and forget the pressure, which is a tad hypocritical given what I have written so far. Start writing. Get down what you think might be a good opening and then return to it later. It’s almost 100% certain you’ll change it, but you’ll at least be on the way. Otherwise you’ll be staring at a blank page for days, or even weeks. At some point, when you are further down the line, return to it. You’re most likely do this a few times and that’s fine.
Don’t be tempted to begin at the beginning of the story. There is no need to explain who is who and what they have done to date. Back stories are boring. (If you’ve ever watched any superhero franchise, you’ll know the origin story is always a money grab, the film they do when all the good stories are exhausted. That, or they are just about to kill off the main character.)
You might like to bring the reader into the story just at the moment when something big is about to happen. Open at a moment of will-they-won’t-they tension. Buckle up – we’re off. Alternatively, the main character may be exploring a question or an unproven idea. Can I do it? The clue is, probably yes, or the book wouldn’t have been written, but it implies it is not going to be easy. Following on from this, it is crucial to get across what is at stake here; if the main character doesn’t succeed, so what? What will be lost? Their life? Love? Money? All of the above? Needless to say, the higher the stakes, the more you’ll get the reader to buy in.
When you do go back to refine the first paragraph, don’t try too hard. Don’t be too flowery, or complex, or try to wow your readers with your incredible vocabulary. It’ll come off as forced, dull, or just plain confusing. Likewise, don’t go over the top and bring together a simultaneous speed chase, bullets flying, dragons and an earthquake. That’s not just ridiculous on many levels. You’ve also not yet really secured reader buy-in, so it is unlikely they’ll even care about the outcome of this over-the-top drama. The aim here is to pique the reader’s interest and bring them with you on a journey, not introduce them to a creative writing course.
Voice is important. In ghostwriting, it is one of our most crucial skills: we need to capture the voice of the author, so the book reflects their personality. The truth is, though, any book should have a commanding, compelling and convincing voice throughout. It is what engages readers and leads them by the hand, chapter by chapter.
The goal of this first chapter is to establish the time and place, encouraging the reader to sink into the book, fully immersing themselves into the story. For this to happen, they’ll need to be made to do some work too. Use language that fires all of their senses into action, so they feel like they are in the story. This is not an invitation for an intensive, wordy description of the various settings they may find in the book, along with a historically accurate outline of the era. Too much detail is not required. The rest of the book will build the scene, placing readers at the centre of the story. At this point, there needs to be just enough to get them interested.
Don’t be shy about jumping in quite quickly to use dialogue. It doesn’t matter that your reader doesn’t yet know the characters. Dialogue is the easiest way to help readers get to know them. You can say so much more in line or two of conversation than you can get down in a whole paragraph or more.
Most of all, keep it short and tight. Write your chapter and then go back and lop off at least 20%. It’ll instantly read much better. Your Chapter One may end up being completely different from where it started, but that is a good thing.
When it comes to where to end, I’ve always been a big fan of Dickens and his style of ending chapters with cliffhangers. This is especially crucial in a first chapter. The more a reader reads, the more they will want to read. Get them to slip effortlessly from Chapter One to Chapter Two in the first sitting and you’ve got them. Now, they most certainly give a you-know-what about your book.
Teena Lyons publishes a regular blog at www.professionalghost.com