Reel 'em in - and make it riveting

July 7, 2006

Your book is in their hands. They skim it, then snap it shut with grim finality. Where did you go wrong? To ensure a happy ending, you must captivate your audience with a strong beginning, says Harriet Swain

Once upon a time, there was an academic who was trying to write the opening chapter of a book. He tried putting in all the interesting things he had spent years researching. He tried putting in all the interesting things other people had spent years researching before him. But in the end it was just too dull.

"Opening chapters cannot afford to be remotely boring," says Catherine Clarke, literary agent with Felicity Bryan. She argues that the most important task is to grab the reader's attention without being too sensationalist.

"You don't necessarily need to start at the chronological beginning," she says. "You might want to choose another point and then fill in the background later. Once you have the reader hooked, you can pull them through the rest of the book."

Richard Fisher, director of humanities and social sciences at Cambridge University Press, says the key is not to assume the importance of what you have done. "You always have to persuade people why what you have done matters."

Regardless of the type of book it is, you need to begin by explaining why the story had to be told, says Rebecca Stott, professor of literature at Anglia Ruskin University and author of the forthcoming novel Ghostwalk .

"The reader is going to embark on a journey that takes time, and all such voyagers should at least be told from the outset why this particular journey is going to be interesting, relevant and important, something about what the terrain might look like and what other people might have said who have travelled there before," she says.

But do not rush in with too much information, warns Winston Fletcher, a regular book reviewer for The Times Higher . "Many academic books pack far too much indigestible information into the opening few pages," he says.

Instead, they should be aiming for "a simply put, jargon-free outline of what the book is going to be about, written to tempt (academics) to read it".

This means being absolutely clear about what it is you are trying to say - not getting sidetracked by what others think you are trying to say - and getting on with saying it, Fisher says.

Being too negative can be off-putting, so avoid spending time exploring what the book is not about. "Generally, one always encourages people to get down to business," he says.

This is once you have decided whether you need an introduction or preface before your first chapter. Fletcher says an introduction should provide an overview, whereas a first chapter should provide this while also getting going on the meat of the book.

He suggests that an introduction is useful if you have general things to say that will help the reader get to grips with the rest of the book, bearing in mind that the needs of the reader are paramount.

What you are trying to say and who you are trying to say it to will necessarily affect how you begin, which means an opening chapter of a textbook will be very different from that of a novel. But Fletcher says you should always keep in mind that every sentence you write should entice the reader to continue.

Clarke says the ideal opening chapter for a book aimed at general readers should set a strong narrative, to attract the attention of someone not already familiar with the subject matter.

"Telling a story that grabs the reader's imagination and is in some ways emblematic of the book and what is to come is, in my opinion, probably the best way to kick-start a book," she says. For her, getting to the human element quickly is usually a good idea for books in the humanities.

She says most of the non-fiction books that have done well tend to be ambitious. "You might want to look at grand statements that you go on to back up, or provocative statements that you go on to argue for," she says.

These should not just be attention-grabbing for the sake of it, but should give the reader a taste of what to expect in the rest of the book.

Stott says she likes books that start with a short anecdote or story, but only if it really encapsulates the issues and sets the scene. She cites Henry James's opening to The Turn of the Screw as a particularly effective example of this, and says she tends to admire academic writers such as Simon Schama who overtly use novelistic techniques.

Fisher cites the first chapter of E. P. Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class - with its striking quotation, which is then put into context - as having a particularly strong opening, while Clarke admires Anthony Beevor for launching readers straight into a situation and only later pulling back to show what else was happening and what led up to the scene he describes.

But Jon Turney, who leads an MSc in creative non-fiction writing at Imperial College London, says you need to be true to yourself. He says chapter one is where you establish the voice in which you are going to speak to the reader, and not only must it be one that you can sustain, it must also be one that is both appealing to the reader and authentic to the book.

He says the opening chapter should also be where you make a contract with the reader - if they spend time with the book, you will deliver certain promises. If you fail to deliver - whether these are promises of searing drama, laughter and tears, or the answer to a great question - the reader will be angry and probably will not buy your next book.

All of which means you cannot afford to rest on your laurels once the first chapter is completed. Clarke says you need to remember that the second chapter will have to flow smoothly on from the first - and so on, until the book reaches its end.


Grab the attention of the reader

Begin a narrative

Say clearly what you are going to do and why it matters

Don't say it in too much detail

Don't promise what you cannot deliver

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