The 6 Necessary Elements in Your Novel’s Opening Chapters

Writing a novel is a massive undertaking. It doesn’t matter if you’ve written one or thirty.

And even after studying countless how-to books on fiction writing and taking workshops and listening to podcasts, many aspiring writers still flounder.

Why is that? Because there is so much to learn, and if you undertake this mission to learn without focusing first on the most important elements of a story, you can waste a lot of time.

Yes, it’s important to learn how to craft great characters. And write distilled, effective dialogue. And have a riveting plot. But that’s not enough.

I do more than 200 manuscript critiques a year, some by beginning writers and others by seasoned authors. Regardless, I can tell you this as fact:

Very few of these manuscripts hold up structurally. Very few have stellar writing.

Very few accomplish what those first few chapters must do.

What is that, you might ask?

  1. Setup of a strong, compelling, empathetic protagonist. You need your reader to bond with your protagonist in the first page or two (of the first scene he or she is in). Unless you have a terrific prologue to launch your story (meaning, it’s just what your premise and story line need), you should be starting your novel with your protagonist. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, but if you’re a novice writer, I would highly recommend this course. If you’re not clear on how to create a compelling protagonist, read some of my posts on the topic. Just know, though, this is paramount. Without that compelling protagonist, your novel is going to flop.
  2. Get the protagonist’s core need, motivation, and life situation clear. You might think this is a no-brainer, but this is severely lacking in a lot of manuscripts I critique. Part of setting up that main character is revealing these key facets about him. Start your story in the middle of something important happening in his life that will reveal his living situation, his immediate problems and concerns, his work and lifestyle, his deepest hopes and dreams and fears. This is all key to story structure and preparation for the inciting incident to come.
  3. Present the inciting incident. This comes close to the start of your novel. Usually by the 10% mark. But when you are just starting your novel, you don’t know what will end up being 10%. So it’s easier to think in terms of scenes. Get the opening scene or two setting things up so you can slam your character with that incident. Without proper setup of your protagonist, which means risking the bond and concern for what happens to him, that incident may fall flat. You need to first get your reader to like, care, and understand—to some extent—what he’s about.
  4. Introduce key supporting characters. These opening chapters need to set up your protagonist’s world populated by character types: family, friends, rivals, love interests, etc. These all need clear roles and should have unique personalities and voices (which includes the narrative voice if they have their own POV scenes).
  5. Hint at the stakes, and make them high. The more stakes, both personal and public, you can create, the better. But they need to be believable and appropriate. In other words, if you have a boring, weak concept without any kicker, throwing in a ton of danger and conflict that is random and meaningless won’t do anything to hype up the tension in your story. Again, I have gobs of posts and chapters in my writing craft books on conflict, stakes, and tension. Do your homework if you need to learn all this.
  6. Get that protagonist’s goal in sight! Fifty pages will sometimes get you to that 25% mark in the novel, at which point the hero’s goal for the novel is locked into place. If you’re writing a long novel, by page fifty, your character might not be at that turning point yet, but he should be getting close. All scenes should be propelling your character to that important point. What I see in a lot of novels is a string of scenes, random events and interchanges that don’t seem to have any point to them.

While there is a whole lot more needed in the opening chapters, these are just some key ones that you need to be aware of.

Those opening scenes work as a litmus test for the rest of a manuscript. In other words, if these first scenes reveal serious flaws, more than likely the rest of the scenes will be infected as well.

Here’s the thing: if you haven’t written a lot of novels and gotten professional feedback to show you what you’re missing or weak in, you may spend years pumping out drafts of novels and getting nowhere.

How serious are you about writing a terrific novel? So many writers wouldn’t think about spending their hard-earned money on hiring an editor or writing coach. While serious about developing a writing career, maybe even hoping to make a real “living” at it, they don’t think they need to invest monetarily in their “training” other than to perhaps buy some books.

Think about the amount of money people pour into education and getting a college degree. Or maybe think about what you spent on that trip you took (pre-Covid), a week maybe of fun on holiday but left just fleeting memories.

How much is your writing career worth?

Here’s the thing about writing fiction, though: you often don’t know what you need to improve upon until someone with experience points it out. It’s not like in basketball where it’s obvious your jump shot or free throw sucks.

Writers can spend years trying to improve their stories, thinking they’re applying all the many things they’re learning. But the most egregious issues are often staring right at them and they can’t see them.

It is a bit of not seeing the forest for the trees.

Think about how much time you’re willing to tinker with your writing, hoping one day you’ll write well enough to hit those best-seller lists or get gobs of 5-star reviews.

Wouldn’t you want to know if you are wasting your time? Wouldn’t you like to know what your strengths and weaknesses are so that you can target those weaknesses and improve and bolster those strengths to develop a strong writing style? It’s doable!

Consider having a fifty-page critique, maybe even an outline critique. If you’re struggling with your ideas and story concept and need help putting it all in order, or you want to know if your premise has potential, book a phone consultation with me and we will discuss!

You can read all about my critique services, rates, and formatting requirements HERE. Don’t waste another moment guessing what’s wrong with your manuscript. Make the commitment to do all you can to become the best writer you can be!

Photo by Fernando Andrade on Unsplash

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