opening chapter

Use a Question to Create an Unforgettable Opening Chapter

opening chapterCreating an opening chapter that hooks readers into your story is the trick you have to master in every one of your stories. But once you know the secret of a good opening chapter, it’s not so tricky.

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 is 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. The 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.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What’s the unanswered question in your opening chapter? Tell me in the comments!

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic

Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland’s e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.

About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. 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.

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

    Great post.

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

  4. 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.”

  5. 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!

  6. 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?

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

  8. Gabrielle says

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

  9. 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.

  10. 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!

  11. Jeriann Fisher says

    Great post. Here’s my chapter 1 question.

    It’s one thing for young army widow Emma to get up her nerve to proposition the single man staying in the cabin next door, but will she keep her nerve when she realizes she’d met him 4 years ago while she was still happily married and has never forgotten him?

  12. Brenda Felber says

    Twelve year old Lillia (middle-grade novel) is flying in over Phoenix and surrounding mountains when the airline pilot points out the mountain below as they fly over it in prepararation for landing. He/she tells about the Curse of the Superstition Mountain in ominous tones. Lillia questions what the curse is…and hopefully so will the young readers! Thanks for video post KM!

  13. People gossip about my face.

  14. Tony Findora says

    It’s such a tough thing to do. I’m uncertain where I want to begin with the story.

    I am certain though of important aspects I want to include in the first chapter. Still trying to determine how I want it to go though.

    Thank you for sharing this info! 🙂

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.