The Opening Chapters of a Novel
A word of warning: as we discuss the many elements which wind up being included in the opening chapters of a novel, the discussion will often sound as though the writer must know all of that before beginning to write. ‘Tain’t so–at least not for every writer.
While some do outline an entire novel before they begin to write, many others have to write several drafts in order to discover the various elements which will appear in the final version. And many others outline but also discover something new as they write.
Most of us learn as we go what sort of writer we are, and some will work in one way on one book and another on another book. I happen to be one who has to write the book to find out what happens in it, though I’ll also often pause to jot down ideas about what happens next—a sort of sentence outline—before doing the actual writing.
I want to emphasize this: you don’t have to work out all these opening elements before you sit down to write. You might know all these things before you start, or you might discover some of them on what you thought would be the final draft. You might also discover some elements as you work on various drafts. All approaches are okay. You’re going to have to write more than one draft, so you’ll have the opportunity to add to your opening the things you didn’t know when you started.
Openings must do a lot more than “hook” the reader, and if they don’t succeed, many readers won’t keep going. One of the key elements has to do with establishing firmly the novel’s “present time.”
This isn’t terribly complicated: “present time,” refers to when the novel’s current events take place, as compared to past events which may influence the novel’s current events.
Too much background in the opening, especially the first chapter, can leave the reader confused about just when this novel is supposed to take place. A hint: you need to know everything about the characters’ pasts (or to discover everything in the process of writing and revising)—but readers need a lot less in order to move into the novel’s present and future, and that’s where you want readers to focus.
Keep in mind that the “present time” of chapter one will almost always move into “future time” as the novel progresses, at which point “future time” becomes the present, and the original present time has become part of the past.
Of course there are always exceptions to everything one says about writing, and here’s one: some novels establish a “present time” in their openings, then spend the rest of the novel exploring how things became as they are in that “present time.” A narrator looking back over a long life might be presented in old age in chapter one, then go back into the past and move forward from there. In that case, two “present times” are established—first, where the narrator is “now” as s/he tells the story, and then when the story began. That second “present time” will then move into “future time,” and so on. Probably the story will eventually get to where the novel began and may even go on from there.
That’s enough about time. Probably more than enough. Next we’ll take up story—what happens next—and plot—why things happen: causation.