It might make some people flinch to think this but: the first 3 chapters of your book are a sales document. Most agents and publishers only ask to see the first 3 chapters of your book when you submit. Based on those first 3 chapters, agents will decide to take you on or to pass you over and publishers will decide to accept or reject your book.
So it makes sense that you should spend more time on the first three chapters of your book than on any other part. To help with that, here are 10 tips about how to write the beginning of a book to give your book its best chance.
1. Introduce Your Main Characters
We must meet your main character and ideally your other key character, which could be a love interest, an important family member or friend, or the antagonist. The reader needs to know who to care for, whose side to be on, who they should invest their emotional energy with for the duration.
So, we need to meet the important people and we need to get a sense of the important relationships in the book.
2. Make Sure We Like and/or Understand Your Main Character
I’m not the kind of person who believes all main characters should be likeable. But, if you’re writing an unlikeable main character, you need to make sure we understand why the character is behaving as they do, or you need to make sure we are intrigued by them. Think of Nick in Gone Girl. I didn’t like him at the start of the book but I was really intrigued to find out just what he’d done.
3. Use Primarily Action and Dialogue
Philosophising, introspection, lengthy internal monologue, characters spending a lot of time by themselves aren’t the best devices for your beginning. It’s very hard to get to know a character through those devices.
Think about what happens when you meet people in real life. How do you get to like them, get to know them, get to understand them? By talking to them, by doing things with them i.e. through action and dialogue. You don’t ordinarily get the chance to see inside the head of someone you’ve just met, to their intimate thoughts.
It’s the same for characters. Get them to talk to us and do things. Don’t leave them in rooms by themselves where all they can do is think.
4. Establish Your Character’s Ordinary Life and Routine
We need to know the lie of the land before everything changes in the story, so that the change that happens to your character is impactful. But don’t over-labour this. A well chosen page of dialogue can easily set this up.
Think of Pride and Prejudice. We quickly see the silliness of Lizzie’s mother and most of her sisters and understand that Lizzie does not belong in such a home. We are also quickly made to understand about the entail on the estate, and thus that Lizzie must marry someone with money. But we also see Lizzie tell Jane that she will marry for love, thus setting up the central conflict of the story. This is the lie of the land for Lizzie, until Mr Darcy appears – the moment of change.
The key here is to be brief. If you spend too much time on the ordinary and the every day with no moment of change, the reader will become bored.
5. Give A Hint of Some Dissatisfaction
This links to the last step. The set up of the ordinary course of your character’s life is likely to be more interesting if you show us a hint of dissatisfaction, or a latent need or desire, or an inkling that something is missing from your character’s life.
Your character might not know exactly what they’re missing, but they will know what parts of their life are boring or irritating or miserable or hurtful or repressed.
6. An Inciting Incident
An Inciting Incident is the event that sets your story in motion. It is the thing that disrupts your character’s ordinary life i.e. the arrival of Mr Darcy and Mr Bingley.
The Inciting Incident helps your character understand that something is missing from their life and what a possible solution to that might be – they might not be right about the solution of course at this point of the narrative. It also sets in motion the events that lead up to the Crisis; if the Inciting Incident didn’t happen, the Crisis moment in your story wouldn’t happen either.
7. Begin a Journey
The Inciting Incident should cause your character to react – to do something that is out of the ordinary. They then embark on their journey. The plot of your book really kicks in here. The inciting incident causes an event, which causes the next event etc, all the way to the crisis moment.
8. Make the Reader Curious
Your story should pose some questions that the reader wants answered. They will keep reading to find the answer. For instance, in Gone Girl, the reader wants to know, what Nick is lying about, is he guilty, what is he guilty of, what has happened to Amy?
You need to establish the key dramatic questions that the story spends its whole length answering.
9. Establish the Voice of the Story
You need to show the reader that you have control of the narrative right from the outset. Establishing the voice of your story and the character will help you to do this.
Everything flows from the first three chapters so if the voice isn’t right here, it never will be. You need to give the reader a sense of your authority – that you have command over the story and the events and the structure. The reader needs to trust that you will show us a story worth reading.
10. Sell Your Book
When you’re redrafting, you should read your first three chapters with their sales-worthiness in mind at least once. Are they the best first three chapters you can possibly give your book?
Check all your firsts. Is the first line of your book the best first line? What about your first paragraph? First chapter? First line of next chapter?
My Draft Beginnings
One of my readers asked if they could see a section from the first draft of one of my books compared to the published version. And I thought it would be a great opportunity to show you the beginning of If I Should Lose You in draft form and in its published form so you can see how I took into account these rules.
Here’s the draft beginning of If I Should Lose You. Read at your own risk! Writers don’t normally put their drafts out there but what the hell. It’s a draft. You understand that. And I think it’s really interesting to see how much I wasn’t thinking of these rules in my first draft because that draft is all about getting the story down for me.
Then in redrafting, I start to think about these rules. And you can see the final, published beginning of If I Should Lose You here, and note how much it’s changed, and why. I won’t analyse it for you because I know you’re all capable of doing that yourself. But let me know in the comments which rules I didn’t follow in my first draft and how I fixed them in the final version.
Are these rules helpful? Do you have your own rules? And have I missed anything that you don’t like to see in the beginning of a book?