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Anne R. Allen's Blog


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Anne writes funny mysteries and how-to-books for writers. She also writes poetry and short stories on occasion. Oh, yes, and she blogs. She's a contributor to Writer's Digest and the Novel and Short Story Writer's Market for 2016. 

Her bestselling Camilla Randall Mystery Series features perennially down-on-her-luck former socialite Camilla Randall—who is a magnet for murder, mayhem and Mr. Wrong, but always solves the mystery in her quirky, but oh-so-polite way.

Anne lives on the Central Coast of California, near San Luis Obispo, the town Oprah called "The Happiest City in America."

Anne blogs at Anne R. Allen's Blog...with Ruth Harris 
and at Anne R. Allen's Books

Sunday, June 9, 2013

10 Things Your Opening Chapter Should Do: A Check-List for Self-Editing

Let’s face it: first chapters are hard.

When you’re writing your first draft, you’re writing for yourself—getting to know your characters and their world. You should let everything spill out on the page free of your inner editor’s censorship.

But when you’re revising, it’s a different story. You’ll need to cut a whole lot of info you’ve put into the opening chapters. Don’t delete anything—save it for later to scatter through the book.

You’re going to end up with an opening chapter that’s way different from the one you started with. And that’s as it should be. In fact your entire original Chapter One may end up being one of those darlings you have to kill.

I usually write the final draft of my first chapter last. That’s because I won’t know exactly what needs to be in there until I’ve got the ending all polished up.

An ideal first chapter should do the following things:

1) Introduce the main character. 

You want to open with a scene involving the protagonist. Yes, I know the standard opening of every cop show on TV involves random strangers discovering a body or getting killed. This is something that works great in drama but not in a novel.

Whoever we meet first in a book is the character we’ll bond with. If that person gets killed on page five, we feel cheated.

We don’t need to know a huge amount about the MC right away, but we need to know enough to care. You can be very sketchy about looks (all Jane Austen told us about Elizabeth Bennett is that she had “fine eyes”.)

We probably need to know gender, age and maybe social status/work/position in society, but most of all, we need to know the emotions the character is feeling in the scene—preferably something the reader can identify with.

Here’s how I open Ghostwriters in the Sky: 

“The subway car was so crowded I couldn’t tell which one of the sweaty men pressing against me was attached to the hand now creeping up my thigh. I should have known better than to wear a dress on a day I had to take the subway, but in the middle of a New York heat wave, I couldn’t face another day in a pants suit.”

I haven’t used any description of the protagonist, but we can tell she’s 1) female 2) a worldly city dweller who takes things in stride 3) not rich enough to take a taxi 4) employed in some way that usually requires wearing a suit 5) way too polite for her own good.

We can also identify with her distress at being groped. She’s in an uncomfortable situation and we hope for her to escape without harm.

2) Make us care enough to go on a journey with that character. 

This is trickier than it sounds. What makes us care? There’s no formula and no one thing will work for every reader in every genre.

Agents and editors are always telling us they want a “sympathetic” protagonist, but that doesn’t necessarily mean somebody you’d like to like to have as a friend.

Scarlett O’Hara is shallow and narcissistic, but readers have found her fascinating for nearly a century. Dexter Morgan is a sociopathic serial killernot exactly a guy you'd want for a BFF. And who’d actually like to spend time with Lisbeth Salander? Even Jane Austen’s Emma is something of a witch.

You don’t have to present us with a protagonist as flawed as those characters. But they do need to have weaknesses. My sleuth, Camilla Randall, is terminally polite, and always believes things are going to be perfectly fine, although the reader can see sure-fire trouble looming.

Some people like a kick-ass-first, ask-questions-later character, and some prefer a more thoughtful, honorable hero. It will depend on genre and tone.

What readers generally don’t find sympathetic is arrogance, whining, or a victim mentality. A hero needs to be brave in some way, so let us see the potential for that right away.

3) Set tone. 

You don’t want to start out a romantic comedy with a gruesome murder scene, or open a thriller with light, flirtatious banter. You want to immerse your reader in the book’s world from the opening paragraph. Since novelists don’t have music and visuals to set the scene, we need to use words that convey tone.

Long descriptions of weather or setting aren’t in fashion these days, but broad descriptive strokes can offer a lot in terms of setting the mood of your story.

My above opener is light and humorous. The sticky weather echoes Camilla's sticky situation. In another kind of book, this could be a situation of grave danger, or something that would cause the heroine extreme distress. Then describing the humid weather in terms of darkness or heaviness would convey a different mood.

But you don’t have to use weather or description to set tone. Sharp, staccato dialog can convey danger, or a self-deprecating narrative voice can show we’re going to be in for some laughs.

4) Let us know the theme. 

If you’re going to be dealing with a particular theme, you don’t want to hit us over the head with it, but give us some foreshadowing. Great authors can do this in the first sentence.

Look at how William Gibson began Neuromancer, the novel that defined cyberpunk: "The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” Gibson lets us know from the get-go this is about the dark side of technology.

I start my mystery Sherwood, Ltd with this paragraph:

“Anybody can become an outlaw. For me, all it took was a little financial myopia, an inherited bad taste in spouses, a recession—and there I was, the great-granddaughter of newspaper baron H. P. Randall, edging around in alley-shadows, about to become a common thief.”

You know right away we’re dealing with a theme of poverty, outlaws and thieves—echoing the Robin-Hoody title.

5) Let us know where we are.  

Don’t give us a ton of physical description, but we need to know what planet/historical time period we’re in.

In spite of everything you’ve heard about showing-not-telling, it’s perfectly all right to give the reader some basic information in a straightforward way, as Jeffrey Eugenidies does in Middlesex:

“I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.”

In SciFi and Fantasy especially, you need to do some world-building, but limit it to the absolute necessities and fill in the details later. Most new writers tend to tell us way too much about their fantasy world up front. You want to tell us just enough to allow us to picture the scene that’s taking place, but not bog down the action.

6) Introduce the antagonist.

An antagonist is someone/something that keeps the protagonist from his goal.

The concept of an “antagonist” is probably the hardest thing for most new writers to grasp.

You may think that if you're not writing a mystery about a sadistic serial killer, or a spy novel where the hero must thwart the evil genius plotting to take over the world, you don’t need an antagonist.

But there’s a difference between an antagonist and a villain.

An antagonist can be a whole society, an addiction, a judicial system, or anything that might thwart a hero from achieving his goal. But you absolutely need one. (I found that out the hard way. I wrote a novel for 10 years that had no antagonist and I couldn’t figure out why it wouldn’t end.) The wonderful Kristen Lamb writes some of the best stuff I’ve seen on the subject of the antagonist, which she calls the Big Boss Troublemaker. Here’s one of Kristen's great posts on the BBT.

7) Ignite conflict.

We need conflict not only in the opening scene, but we need to see an over-arching tension that will drive your plot.

In the Hunger Games, the burning question in the opening scene is who will be chosen for the games. But the larger conflict is with the Hunger Games themselves. When the conflict of the opening scene is resolved, we still keep turning pages because of the underlying tension from a bigger story question—how will Katniss survive?

Conflict does not have to mean an actual battle. In fact, starting in the middle of a battle can be awfully confusing for a reader. It’s better to start with something like the heroine preparing for battle by stealing her brother’s armor after her father forbids her to fight.

8)  Give us a goal: tell us what your protagonist wants.

We need to know what he wants right now, which might be for the troll who just killed his companions to stop swiping at him with that pointy sword.

But we also need to know pretty early in the story what your hero really, really wants (apologies to the Spice Girls)—his ultimate goal, like maybe taking a magical jewelry item to Mount Disaster to destroy it forever.

I realize this ultimate goal doesn't always show up in chapter one. But we do need a goal in chapter one that will lead to the ultimate goal.

9) Present an exciting, life-changing inciting incident.

This incident has to cause something to happen that will propel us to the next scene—and the one after that—and through the entire book. Think of it as the explosion that launches the rocket of your story.

This one is easier for some genre writers.  If you’re writing a mystery, you can find a dead body and the story is off and running.

Or in a romance, the lovely Griselda can meet Lord Puddlesbury when his horse accidentally knocks down her grandfather’s vegetable cart and she vows to hate him forever.

But in other genres, it may be tough to get the inciting incident close to the opener. Do work on it, though, because everything else will seem like throat-clearing to the reader. Most readers aren’t going to admire your lovely prose until you’ve got a story going.

10) Introduce the other major characters. 

“Major” is the key here. Don’t let minor characters upstage the hero in the opener. In fact, you’re better off without any minor characters in the opening scene. We’ve got so much stuff to cram in there, we don't have much room for the maid/sentinel/pizza delivery person character who opens so many dramas.

We need to be introduced to Lord Puddlesbury fairly early on—or at least let us hear about him. Ditto Griselda’s bratty sister whose loose morals threaten to disgrace the poor but honorable family of vegetable mongers, and maybe the stalwart plowboy Jack, who has loved Griselda since childhood. But we don’t need to know about his Lordship’s groom or his tailor unless the bratty sister is going to run off with them in a scandalous ménage a trois in chapter ten.

A lot of new writers tend to clutter up the opener with colorful characters who never appear in the story again. This can irritate a reader, who expects people in the opener to re-appear and play an important role.


Hold on there, sez you. I can think of half a dozen bestsellers off the top of my head that don’t do these things.

 Yup, I can too. I didn’t say these are hard and fast rules. But they’re something to aim for. If your prose is so mesmerizing the reader doesn’t notice, then more power to you. But for most of us mortals, our readers are happiest when they get as much info as possible in the opener.

If your opener doesn’t do any of this stuff—and most first drafts don’t—try this trick: try cutting off the first two chapters. Does chapter three give you a better beginning? Start there. Then feed us the info from the first two chapters a little at a time later on in the book.

How about you, scriveners? Are there any other things you absolutely want to see in an opener? Do you have hard time cramming all this stuff into chapter one? 

Book Deal of the Week

Sherwood, Ltd is 99c for Kindle this month.

"It's not yer typical whodunnit, nor is the protagonist anything like a cop. Ms. Allen...has crafted a wily tale of murder, deceit, and intrigue that can stand with the best of them. Her characters are all too real and her dialogue took me from laughter to chills to suspicion of everybody in the book"—David H. Keith


1) Escargot Books is expanding its catalogue and are now accepting submissions.  Crime fiction (dark thrillers to cozies), women’s fiction, wealth and fitness, children’s, sci-fi and dystopian. All books will be published in digital format. Some books will be chosen for print and/or audio as well. Escargot Books does not offer an advance, but they offer higher royalties than traditional publishers, especially for direct sales from our website, as well as editing, formatting, promotion, and the company of bestselling authors. They have some big name authors and a good track record. Here’s their online submission form.

2) Chick Lit Plus is currently looking for reviewers and contributors to add to the team. If you are interested in joining a popular book and women’s lifestyle blog, and you love Chick Lit, this could be a great opportunity. This is an established site with a big readership. It's a great place to get started as a reviewer. (I personally know two book blog reviewers who have become literary agents. This is a great place to start a career in publishing.)

3) The Lyttoniad contest for the WORST first sentence of a novel. The classic Bulwer-Lytton Contest makes news every year. Each entry must consist of a single sentence but you may submit as many entries as you wish. E-mail entries should be sent to Scott Rice at srice@pacbell.net in the body of the message, Ariel 12 font. One e-mail may contain multiple entries. Entries will be judged by categories, from “general” to detective, western, science fiction, romance, and so on. There will be overall winners as well as category winners. No prizes that I know of, but lots of admiration from your fellow writers.  Deadline is June 30th.

4) FREE book advertising to British readers from EbookBargainsUK 

(I've had fantastic luck with these guys. I used them after my free run of No Place Like Home and my bounce was three times higher in the UK than the US—I'm sure because of the ad.)

DEADLINE EXTENDED! Lots of authors and publishers have had huge successes with their FREE or SALE books by advertising on BookBub, ENT, KND, POI, etc. But none of those target the UK, and their links go to US sites Brits can't use. But now there’s a newsletter for UK readers only. It links to all the big UK retailers like Apple UK, Waterstones and Foyles as well as Amazon UK. They don’t sell books direct or get paid for clickthroughs, so they don't have any restrictions on how many free books they can spotlight like BookBub and the others. So it's THE place to tell Brits about your book when it goes free or on sale in the UK. Since Brits have the highest number of readers per capita of any country in the world, this looks like a great idea to me: Plus: the site will be offering FREE book ads until June 30th, on a first come, first served basis. Remember this is for books you have on sale or free. 

And if you're in the UK, do sign up for their newsletter. It brings links to free and bargain ebooks—at the UK bookstore of your choice—in your inbox every morning. You can subscribe here.

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Blogger Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Thanks for pointing out the antagonist doesn't have to be a villain. I used to stress because I'd been told I needed a villain opposite my hero, but none of my books have a distinct villain. They do have antagonists though.

June 9, 2013 at 10:08 AM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Anne—Super list! Doing the final polish on the first chapter when the book is finished is crucial. Only then, do you—I really mean I—really know what the book is about.

June 9, 2013 at 10:31 AM  
Blogger Sarah Foster said...

Great advice! It's given me a lot to think about for my first chapter. I've actually been pondering who or what the antagonist is in my WIP--still trying to figure it out.

June 9, 2013 at 10:55 AM  
Blogger Sophie Kersey said...

Some excellent pointers to a great opening, and I'm happy to say the opening of my WIP Unspeakable Things ticks a lot more of these boxes than it did when I first wrote it. Then I had a very atmospheric purple passage that I thought was lovely, but which left my first test readers completely baffled. At least I'm learning!

June 9, 2013 at 11:18 AM  
Blogger D.G. Hudson said...

Thanks for the tips. I like checklists.

I've had to rearrange my scifi as you mentioned, to make for a better beginning. It's not an easy thing to do, but it was worth it.

June 9, 2013 at 11:25 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Alex--An antagonist doesn't have to be a moustache-twirling villain. This is probably the hardest thing we have to learn as fiction writers. The more complex the story, the more elusive the "antagonist" may seem, but we definitely need one.

Ruth--That's so true! We usually only know what the book is really about when we're doing the final draft.

Sarah--I do recommend Kristen Lamb's post I linked too. She's really good on antagonists.

Sophie--Oh, those purple passages! We all have them in our early work. Thank goodness for good critique groups and beta readers.

DG--I agree those rewrites can be painful and tedious, but it's worthwhile so you don't baffle the reader. And these days, with the "peek inside" function you want that opener to jump into the story and not confuse.

June 9, 2013 at 12:05 PM  
Blogger Phyllis Humphrey said...

Great post. I recently finished my woman-in-jeopardy mystery, all 63,000 words, and then went back and cut the first three chapters. Talk about backstory! But I didn't waste time sending out that first version. Thanks to people like you, I keep learning. Thanks.

June 9, 2013 at 12:28 PM  
Blogger mshatch said...

This is good. I'll soon be moving on to draft #2 of my wip and these are the sort of things I need to be thinking about.

June 9, 2013 at 12:36 PM  
Blogger Tonya said...

Anne, thank you! You've done it again - provided some lifesaving tips for my book. I have been mulling over the first chapter for months. I wasn't feeling it and couldn't figure out what to do with it. Today, I finally scratched it. The second chapter is far more powerful and a better intro. I can dribble a few bits and pieces from the first. Thanks for the insight and that push!

June 9, 2013 at 1:46 PM  
Blogger J.L. Murphey said...

Good blog!

June 9, 2013 at 2:42 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Phyllis--I know it can be painful to cut those chapters, but usually you can get some of the info into later ones. I hope you still ended up with 60K words. Although these days, a novella might sell just as well.

ms--This is a good time to be thinking about this stuff--not when you were writing that first draft.

Tonya--I'm so glad I could help. I've had to get rid of more first chapters than I can count. We have to think of it as part of the process.


June 9, 2013 at 4:07 PM  
Blogger HeatherCRaglin said...

This is a terrific list. I was mentally checking items off a recently finished ms. I've put this in a special folder so I can refer to it with my WIP and future manuscripts. Thanks!

June 9, 2013 at 5:03 PM  
Blogger Jasmine said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

June 9, 2013 at 5:46 PM  
Blogger Samantha March said...

Thank you for featuring Chick Lit + and you have such a great list there!

June 9, 2013 at 5:47 PM  
Blogger Rosi said...

Great reminders, Anne. Thanks for a timely post.

June 9, 2013 at 6:04 PM  
Blogger Christine Ahern said...

Wonderful list of musts. This is exactly what I expect as a reader and what I hope to achieve as a writer. I write my first chapter then leave it well alone until the book is completed. There is actually some comfort in that somehow. Hum...

June 9, 2013 at 6:17 PM  
Blogger Linda said...

Thanks for a wonderful checklist; my beta-reader just mentioned my first chapter needs to be tightened up and so this is a Godsend.

June 9, 2013 at 6:40 PM  
Blogger Emily Rachelle said...

This was a great post, but now I really want to read the story of Griselda and Lord Puddlesbury...

June 9, 2013 at 7:08 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Heather--I'm so glad I can help with your revisions!

Samantha--Glad to help. Chick Lit Plus is one of my favorite review sites!

Rosi--Glad to help.

Christine--It's harder than it sounds, though isn't it? Not messing with that mess of a first chapter of your first draft is tough.

Linda--I hope your beta-reader approves of the list.

Emily--:-) I'm kind of intrigued by Lord Puddlesbury myself...

June 9, 2013 at 7:32 PM  
Blogger Claude Nougat said...

Anne, a great checklist as always, thanks for sharing!

You do assume that your first chapter doesn't have a prologue...This is where I'd love to get your rules: what do you think a prologue can do that a first chapter doesn't? How do the two relate, if at all?

June 10, 2013 at 6:06 AM  
Blogger Michael Di Gesu said...

Hi, Anne,

Thanks for this checklist. We often need thing POINTED out to us when were are in our creative muse. We can sometimes get lost in our worlds and forget about the what the simplest of things.

And also thanks for the links of publishers looking for new stories.

June 10, 2013 at 7:14 AM  
Blogger Connecting to the soul said...

Anne, I love coming here and seeing what great insights you have. I still haven't found a lock that will hold my inner editor til I need her. She thinks the first chapter of the first draft has to be perfect. (may use that in a story somehow.) As a new writer I am like a sponge soaking up all this good stuff.

Thanks again.

June 10, 2013 at 7:43 AM  
Blogger jp said...

It was interesting going through your list. I never really thought about these things but I am relieved to say I fulfilled the criteria. My books although classified as fiction are based on life experiences.

Perhaps the items you have detailed are successful because they most mirror true-life. Perhaps I just got lucky. this is something I will considder in future.

June 10, 2013 at 7:57 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Claude--The reason there aren't any rules for prologues is the general rule for prologues is: don't write them. Agents hate prologues.(I have a long list of quotes from agents who hate prologues in my book How to be a Writer in the E-age) Plus a lot of readers skip them. They want to jump into the story. If you do write one, make sure it has the same tone and themes as the rest of the book and make it as short as possible. And realize about half the readers will only skim it. If it involves characters that don't appear in the rest of the book, your readers will probably be annoyed.

Michael--moving from creative mode to editing mode takes a whole attitude change. That's why a lot of creative writing teachers suggest you let a draft sit for a week or two before you attempt revisions.

Connecting--I used to do that too. But obsessing about chapter one instead of forging ahead with the story is a kind of writers block. Fight that urge and get on with the story!

jp--It's true this list does follow the rules of journalism: Basically it's give people the Who, What, When, Where and Why. So if you write "true life" stories, you may write more like a journalist.

June 10, 2013 at 9:02 AM  
Blogger Charley Robson said...

Ahaha, this is just what I needed right now. First chapters are my least favourite things ever - thanks so much for this!

June 10, 2013 at 1:28 PM  
Blogger Simon Kewin said...

I read your post with quite a bit of trepidation as the 1st chapter of my next book has just gone live at Wattpad (with the whole book being published in 6 weeks time). But I think I got most of your excellent points covered!

June 11, 2013 at 5:32 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Charley--They do get easier. Honest :-)

Simon--So you're one of the Wattpad pioneers! I'd be interested to hear how that goes. I'm glad your chapter has most of these points covered.

June 11, 2013 at 9:58 AM  
Blogger Alicia Street said...

I always go back and rewrite the first chapter when the book is finished. This post is definitely a keeper for my reference files, Anne. Thanks!

June 11, 2013 at 12:36 PM  
Blogger Hope Ford said...

I was just thinking today...what happened to my main character's friend's friend who made a significant appearance in the first chapter? He he! I love reading the advice you give and I appreciated this list that actually makes what I'm working on seem much less daunting!

June 13, 2013 at 8:23 PM  
OpenID sbibb said...

Great points, thanks for sharing these. :-)

June 14, 2013 at 7:49 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Alicia--That's what I do too!

Hope--I'm so glad it helps. Breaking things down into a checklist helps me.


June 14, 2013 at 9:52 PM  
Blogger Rechelle Owens, Romance Author said...

Great checklist Anne. I have just completed my very first manuscript and this guide will be perfect to reference as I start revisions to make sure I have all the bases covered in that important first chapter. Thanks.

June 18, 2013 at 8:28 AM  
Blogger Christine Wardle said...

Good checklist and it's reassuring because I've ticked all the boxes in the opening chapter of my novel. Perhaps if your don't introduce the antagonist, you introduce something that represents the 'other side'. Some novels have one protagonist battling against a number of 'enemies.'

June 21, 2013 at 2:18 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Rechelle--I'm so glad this post was timely for you. Happy editing!

Christine--the antagonist should be "the other side". Each enemy is a representative of the bigger antagonist (Kristen's Big Boss Troublemaker.) If you have different antagonists for every chapter, you have episodes, not a novel.

June 21, 2013 at 9:29 AM  
Blogger Donelle Lacy said...

Yours is one of my favorite writing blogs to read. So helpful! And now Kristin's will be another favorite. Thanks for this post. It's great to find that my new first chapter covers all of these!

February 15, 2015 at 2:06 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Donelle--Kristen Lamb's blog is full of fantastic advice, and she posts five days a week. I don't know how she does it.

Congrats on having a first chapter that hits all the right notes!

February 15, 2015 at 2:13 PM  
Blogger Nicholas Alti said...

This post was fantastic. I've just finished character preparation and I've been scribbling down notes in preparation to create my outline. I had a personal goal of getting all of these points down within the first five pages, and after reading this article, I've figured out how to do that. My notebook and I thank you, but my carpal tunnel is extremely upset after this post inspired me to violently place my thoughts on paper before they crept out of one of the many holes in my brain. Thank you, and I'll definitely be coming back soon.

March 6, 2015 at 10:46 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Nicholas--I'm so glad this post helped. Although I'm sorry about the carpal tunnels :-) Sounds like you're a great planner! But do finish your book before you let yourself think of chapter one as set in stone. I always write the first paragraph of a book last. Best of luck with the novel!

March 6, 2015 at 11:08 AM  

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