Articles Writing tips

Stakes before settings: opening your adventure

Typewriter showing 'Chapter 1' typed on page
Written by Antonica Jones

Is your first chapter missing the mark when it comes to hooking in readers? Editor Antonica Jones offers science-fiction, fantasy, action and adventure writers some tips on successful openings.

The first chapter of your book has the power to draw or bore potential readers, but it can be tricky to strike the right balance between action and exposition.

Writers of sci-fi, fantasy, action and adventure stories: does the start of your book look anything like this?

  1. We meet the protagonist (let’s call her Sugg) and the world she inhabits: cue character introduction and a play-by-play of the day, featuring a hard day’s work and an insightful argument with a friend.
  2. You set the scene: let’s say we’re on a military-run bee farm, hidden in a luscious valley, where conscripted workers dedicate their lives to the art of beekeeping. The commanders are strict and the bees are happy.
  3. We meet the supporting cast: a future clumsy sidekick that’s ousted in the battleyard, or maybe a little boy that follows Sugg everywhere. The crew that’s sure to lead our story is established.
  4. We see some conflict within the world:  it may be as small as Sugg declaring vengeance upon her good-for-nothing father, or as great as the war currently devouring the world’s nations.
  5. A call to arms: Sugg stumbles into a fight and wins the title of City Champion, or ventures out past the bee farm at last. Our protagonist begins the journey of a lifetime.

How does that sound – decent enough? A smooth opening to an epic fantasy tale?

If you’ve got the style for it, you might be right. But, more often than not, this is a sure-fire way to put your readers to sleep before they’ve gotten past the first chapter of your 5-volume epic.

Give us the magic

You might know you’ve written the greatest story ever told, but your readers have no reason to think so when they first open your book. For every sentence you make them read about how the electricity on Sugg’s planet is powered by honey (I know, I know, it will be really important later on), you’re losing more readers.

In the first chapter, your job is to convince your readers that they want to read your story. That they need to read your story. Few people will keep reading because they just have to know more about the snow-capped mountains scattered across Honeyland. They will, however, read on to find out how Sugg’s going to track down her father or rise to the challenge of defeating the bee overlords. You just have to point them in the right direction.

Keep the stakes high – and raise them early. Don’t make your readers wade through a chapter of hauntingly beautiful scenery before they get to the crux of the story.

Early, but not too early

There is, of course, an element of balance here. ‘Raise your stakes early’ doesn’t mean you should write as if your readers already know what’s going on, but you do need to place a certain amount of trust in them.

If you have a long speech on the backstory of a war before your protagonist is even drafted to the fight, ask yourself if it’s necessary. Do your readers need to know all this now? Wouldn’t it be more exciting if the details were revealed over the course of the story?

If you use more than a few sentences to describe scenery, ask yourself why you put it there. Was it to place your readers solidly within the scene? You’re likely to have more luck showing them the action of the world than showing them what it looks and sounds like. You can bring in more descriptive cues later but first, we need a reason to care that it’s beautiful.

The DOs and DON’Ts

Things your opening doesn’t need:

  • Descriptions of the workings of your world: we don’t want to hear about Honeyland’s three moons right now, unless Sugg is an astronomer and just discovered life on one of them.
  • Lengthy scenery descriptions: keep it to the character’s immediate vicinity.
  • More than three words about the weather, or any at allUnless it’s having a serious impact on your character or the action, we don’t need to know about the sun, the clouds and the gentle breeze.
  • Character backstories: got a woman haunted by her past in your entourage, or a morally sketchy prince? If you know your characters, this will come through in their actions and conversations. Save the exposition for when we’re interested enough to read it.

If you take all of this out of your first few pages and you’re left with nothing at all: that wasn’t your first chapter.

Things your opening should be:

  • Character-driven: we want to engage with the inhabitants of your world. Establish them hard and fast, and let them guide us to where we want to go.
  • Exciting and troublesome: but it doesn’t have to be action-packed; intrigue and mystery can do just as good a job as a fight scene.
  • A story of its own: don’t waste your whole first chapter setting things up for the rest of the book; I came here for a story! Allow your first chapter to contain a resolution to a problem, even if everything will unravel again later. Readers are often looking for a sense of achievement from their protagonist, and you can achieve this in your opening by letting them solve a small problem related to the larger plot.

More than anything, your opening should be brave. You have something to give the world, and we want it! Don’t hide it behind description and flourishes, but set it out there for your readers to take part in.

What else should you consider when you’re writing an opening chapter? Let us know in the comments!

Photo credit: iStock.com/aga7ta

Leave a Comment