The importance of a novel’s opening chapter cannot be overstated. When a reader starts on the opening words of the opening paragraph of the opening chapter of a novel, one of two things is happening: 1) the reader has already committed to reading your book, or 2) the reader is trying to decide if he wants to read your book by examining how it starts. In both cases, this is the right time to put your best foot forward and show the reader what you’ve got.
If the reader has already purchased your book, he’s made a commitment to you as a writer. You have his money. He is looking for an immediate return on that investment. The reader wants to know that he has made a wise choice by purchasing your book, and he wants to know right away. The opening of the book is just the right place to reward that purchase by plunging the reader directly into the web of intrigue and drama that lies under your carefully woven plot. There will be time for subtlelty later, engage your reader in the good stuff right away. Open with a car chase. Stumble upon a dead body. Realize to your heroine’s dismay that her ideal lover loves someone else. Whatever your tactic, by the end of the first chapter your reader should be glad he’s found the rare treasure that is your novel.
If the reader is still undecided about whether to commit to your work, the opening material is even more crucial, and just because writing a novel isn’t enough of a challenge, you have even fewer words in which to capture the reader’s attention irrevocably. Most readers will read two or three chapters of a book they have purchased, even if it doesn’t sieze them from the beginning. The undecided reader barely gives the author time to complete a scene before deciding to purchase the book or laying it aside. This makes the opening scene even more crucial. Open with a car chase … that explodes! Stumble upon a dead body … that could be your identical twin! Realize that your heroine’s true love is in love with … her best friend! No matter the situation, the undecided reader should hit the of that first scene and be absolutely compelled to turn the next page before buying your novel.
Hooking the reader into your novel involves more than shocking revelation, gripping action scenes, or mysterious circumstances. Upon starting your novel, the reader wants to be assured that you know what you’re doing technically, that you can write clearly and construct a linear plot. He wants you to speak to him on his level, not talk down to him or assume he already knows the complete history of your characters. He wants to know that you as a writer have done your setting research and are familiar with the conventions of your chosen genre. The reader expects a level of professionalism and that will justify his investment of time and money in purchasing and reading your novel.
A novel contains a great deal of room in which to develop characters, elucidate upon the plot, and slowly unravel a tangled web of intrigue. You want to make sure that your reader sticks around for the long-term pay-off, and that means giving him a little taste of what’s to come right up front. Forcing a reader to wait for the good stuff while you lay down careful groundwork often leads to abandoned novels and seldom to a second purchase. This is no time to be shy; show off your best work right up front and your reader will stick around for the long haul!