Elements your opening chapter needs
Setting up your story is more than just recounting the moments in your character’s day before the inciting incident. The opening chapters have several critical roles to play. Without these components, readers won’t be ready to take the journey. Don’t leave them standing at the station. Make sure your pack these elements into your opening chapters.
Element 1: Establishing normal
Establishing normal is not telling your reader about an ordinary day in your character’s life. It is showing the reader how your character is currently living. What are your characters problems or limitations? What does he wish he had, or want to change? It is not a static description. Make your character live there.
The beginning of the Lego Batman movie shows Batman fighting Joker and then going home to an empty house. He doesn’t recognize that something is wrong in his life at this point. He’s just living his life. This does not mean you get a free pass on conflict. Batman begins the story with an adversary (the Joker) but he also has an inner conflict with isolation and loneliness. Show your character’s normal problems.
You may not have your character looking in the mirror and describing himself. No. Nor are you allowed to let your character sit at the table eating breakfast and thinking about everyone else around her.
You must build your character by showing her react to things in her world.
Listen to these two characters describe the same person.
The barista had a wicked set hoops running up the outside of her ear. I’m so getting that done when I get paid this Friday.
The barista had an appalling amount of scrap metal attached to her face. Good Lord!
Without saying a word about the point-of-view character, these passages have painted images of both of them. Characterization comes from how your character reacts to things. Show them doing this.
Here are the same two characters as telling.
Jane was punk. She was everything punk. Blue hair, spiky bracelets, whatever she could find to make people shun her.
Jane had no tolerance for nonsense. She was head of this committee and that meant her vote counted twice.
Notice how neither character is actually doing anything. Build your characters by making them do things.
Too many openings start with long passages of static description about the setting. There’s no need for this. A few sentences of exposition to ground the reader is plenty. After that, make sure your character is living in that setting.
Darcella slipped through the doorway and pressed her back against the cold stone wall. The girls’ voices grew louder then faded. They spoke in the high French that was favored at court. The language that was supposed to keep the lowers out. But it didn’t keep her out.
Here the setting is actively shown. Darcella is sneaking around the castle. The girls are speaking French, and it’s clearly not a modern setting.
Element 4: Introduce theme (optional)
Not all stories have a theme. They are useful if you have a dynamic character arc or if your book is tackling a social issue.
Lego Batman: isolation and the need for human relationships
Inside Out: sadness as a necessity for emotional health
In these examples, the theme was a lesson the character had to learn as part of their character arc, but if your main character doesn’t have a dynamic character arc (Sherlock Holmes, James Bond) then you don’t need a theme.
Themes can also present as social issues a character must confront. (Teen suicide in 13 Reasons Why) If you are not writing an issues book, you can skip the theme.
Opening chapters must set-up your story
Opening pages are more than plot. They must create the character and her world and prepare the reader for what’s ahead. By covering these elements, you will have an effective set-up and your readers will be excited about the coming ride.