Use a Question to Create an Unforgettable Opening Chapter

This week’s video simplifies the trick of hooking a reader at the beginning of your opening chapter by showing how Elizabeth Gaskell piqued curiosity in “Lizzie Leigh.”

Video Transcription:

Creating an opening that hooks readers into being unable to put your story down (and, as a result, hopefully plunking down their hard-earned money to purchase it) is the trick you have to master in every one of your stories. But once you know the secret of a good opener, it’s really not so tricky at all. The single most important element in convincing a reader to continue reading past your first page is an unanswered question.

This question might be explicit: perhaps you open with the character wondering something, which will hopefully make readers wonder the same thing. But, more often, the question is implicit, as it was, for example, in Elizabeth Gaskell’s short story “Lizzie Leigh,” which opens with a dying man’s last words to his wife. All he says is, “I forgive her, Anne! May God forgive me.” Readers have no idea whom the man is forgiving, or why he might need to beg God’s forgiveness in turn. The very fact that we don’t know what he’s talking about makes us want to read on to find the answers.

The important thing to remember about presenting this opening question is that it cannot be vague. Readers have to understand enough about the situation to mentally form a specific question. What the heck is going on here? does not qualify as a good opening question. It’s not absolutely necessary that the question remain unanswered for the entire story. It’s perfectly all right to answer the question in the very next paragraph, so long as you introduce another question, and another and another, to give your reader a reason to keep turning those pages in search of answers.

Tell me your opinion: What’s the unanswered question in your opening page?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Good post, I’m always looking for ways to make my beginning a hook to read further.

  2. My favorite opening line is from Raphael Sabitini’s SCARAMOUCHE : “He was born with the gift of laughter and the knowledge that the world was mad.”

    I wanted to know more about this fellow right off. Who is this fascinating man? That was the question in my mind.

    The opening lines to the first chapter of my RITES OF PASSAGE :

    “I’m not alive.
    I’m not dead.
    What am I?
    Cursed.”

    Hopefully, the reader will want to know just who this person is and just what kind of curse is he talking about.

    As always, you had a insightful, helpful, and thought-provoking post, Roland

  3. Wonderful post and great site. Don’t know what took me so long to find you! Thanks!

  4. The question in my first scene would be, why is this character sabotaging his own temple and god? and what does he hope to accomplish?

  5. Roland, I’d keep reading your book w/ that opening.

    Mine is:

    Twenty-one-year old Emmaline James set the gravy boat on the table, slipped off her apron, and crept to the parlor. She hovered in the dark shadows near the door, studying the man she was promised to. Her stomach churned.

    To read the first two pages you can go to my website http://www.melissaknorris.com

  6. I’ve just started a new manuscript. Page 1 is always the hardest (and usually disappears). Since I don’t plot, those questions are the ones I’m asking myself as I put the character on the page to see what he’ll do.

    Terry
    Terry’s Place
    Romance with a Twist–of Mystery

  7. Hm…I think mine is along the lines of “why are these people so afraid of these creatures?”, which I answer through the rest of the chapter.

    I really enjoyed this post. It got me thinking. Thanks!

  8. In my first paragraph, my character says she hopes taking this job will serve her purpose…escaping her home town and her past. So the question for the reader would be ‘what happened in her past and why does she feel the need to escape it?’ Great post and helpful…I know I’m on the right track.

  9. @Janet: Performing its duties as a hook is the number one challenge every beginning has to meet.

    @Roland: Nice! I like it. Don’t know why, but both lines reminded me of Dostoevsky’s classic opener in Notes From the Underground.

    @Marci: Glad you stopped by!

    @Sarah: Great question. The immediate juxtaposition offers all kinds of reasons for curiosity.

    @Melissa: Doesn’t sound like she’s promised to much of a charmer!

    @Terry: That sounds all too familiar. My beginnings get deleted and rewritten more than any other part of my stories.

    @Jenna: Thinking writers are usually good writers!

    @Marcia: As a reader, I always like the questions that indicate juicy tidbits in a character’s past

  10. Great post. Worth thinking about. The unanswered question on the first page of my first novel; ‘Call me Aphrodite’ is ‘who am I?’ The protagonist is a 13 year old girl who has lost her memory. Hopefully, the reader has two more questions which may exist as subtext; ‘how did she end up in this place/situation?’ and ‘what is going to happen to her?’

  11. What you have been writing and posting the last few days have been remarkably helpful. 🙂 It is like you know exactly what I need to read.

    I usually don’t edit until the first draft is done but, it just gets to overwhelming to edit so I am going to be doing the 50 page edit, because as you have just written my story needs a new first chapter…again. 🙂 But this time I feel so much more equipped between reading this and your post 9 ways to strengthen your beginning. THANK YOU!

    Jessica

    BTW, have you ever considered putting all of marvelous articles you write into a book? You always make them so nice and short it would make a really wonderful little 5 minute fixes, advice, wisdom book for writers.

  12. @Christopher: I have a major fondness for amnesia stories – so that’s one unanswered question that’s sure to hook this reader at any rate!

    @Jessica: I’m so glad the posts have been helpful! Actually, I do have plans to compile and publish various posts in series of books. The first installment Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success should be out this fall.

  13. Marianne says:

    Great video and suggestion. In my opening page of my current project I wrote “I never imagined those memories would come flooding back more like knowledge than memory.”

  14. Marianne says:

    I just read my post and it sounds lame as it stands. I am adding more of the beginning to clarify the sentence. Sorry. “I never really gave it much thought. It was always somewhere in the back of my mind, but until that morning nothing more than memories of the stories my mother told me. I never imagined those memories would come flooding back more like knowledge than memory.”

  15. I like it! It evokes a nice sense of nostalgia and melancholy – and definitely raises some interesting questions.

  16. I hope my opening chapter will leave readers thinking “what will happen next?” followed swiftly by “I’ve got to read on and find out!”

    I’m hoping plonking readers in the middle of an attack with minimal backstory will work!

  17. The key thing to remember about diving right into the action is that all the action in the world won’t matter to the reader unless the author gives him a reason to care about the character. Often it’s better to spend a few paragraphs hooking the reader with character (usually via that unanswered question) before throwing both him and the character into the melee.

  18. I’ve been trying to come up with a better opening line to my WIP for a few weeks now. I know I need that hook, I just have to find it.

  19. The good thing about hooks is that you have the entire book to come up with one. I inevitably rewrite my beginning after finishing the first draft.

  20. Great post, esp. the point about a specific question. I’ve been tweaking my beginning a lot but I guess the opening question would be : is she (the heroine) going to escape? I like to start with action or setting. Someone in a tree, for example is one I’ve used, just because there is usually a very good reason for being in a tree. The opening question you talked about in the post was very intriguing.

  21. A strange setting is often a great way to introduce that opening question. Why is the character in a tree, an ice locker, a burning building, a elephant pen? The possibilities are endless!

  22. ooo… fantastic, and naturally I thought of “Rosebud!” 😀

    My question is more questions–what is MC so afraid of? What is she going to do?

    This is a super key. Thanks, girl~ :o)

  23. Considering this is a lock we face in every story, it’s a key every one of us should be armed with.

  24. Great way to look at it. The unanswered question is what sticks with us the longest. The desire to have the answer keeps the reader moving forward as it should the characters as well.
    I love setting the characters up in an unusual situation and give them a question to answer. Why is X dead? What were they doing here? So forth and so on.

  25. Unanswered questions make it easy for us to move forward as writers. We never have to wonder what we’re going to write next, so long as we have a question to answer.

  26. A woman is on fire. Why is she just laying there?

    Great post.

  27. Oooh! I like that one a lot. Creates an instant mental picture too, which is always a plus.

  28. Great post. Now you’ve got me wondering who the dying man was forgiving and why he needed to be forgiven. (Yes, I know I need to find and read the story.)

    I haven’t written the first chapter of my novel yet, but the second chapter begins, “It was the deepest darkness he had ever created, and he couldn’t find his way out of it.”

  29. Honestly, “Lizzie Leigh” really isn’t that great. I’m a fan of Elizabeth Gaskell, but this particular story is on the dull side. Nevertheless, goes to show the power of a strong opening question!

  30. I hadn’t considered putting a question in my opening, but after seeing this post, I have to agree you have a brilliant point.

    With my own WIP being a science fiction story, I suppose the question I could ask is: Can humanity overcome a weapon used for the specific purpose of wiping out civilization?

  31. I would add that the opening question doesn’t have to be grand and overarching. Sometimes the best openers are simple, small questions.

  32. Gabrielle says:

    I’m pretty sure first lines are one of the hardest things. Thanks for this advice! I have some work to do…

  33. They’re definitely an art unto themselves. But they can be a lot of fun too. They offer so much room to be bold and inventive.

  34. I like the idea of having a glimpse of your whole novel right there in the opening. Mine is a work in progress so the opening has already changed several times and could change again, but right now it goes:

    “I did not mean to kill the creech. It’s just that I was so hungry, and the creech was right there under my nesting place when I woke up.”

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I like that approach too. I’ve always favored using the opening and closing lines to bring things full circle.

      Your line makes me want to know what a “creech” is!

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