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David Robinson
"'Give the story wings' ... Tobias Wolff quotes the example of Chekhov'..." More

Tip From Jacques Strauss

How to write a compelling opening chapter. My editor said that the opening chapter of my book was, ‘… so awful it made me want to hurl it out the window.’ Not a propitious start for a manuscript on submission. The problem was, I was trying too hard. I’d heard so often about the importance of an opening chapter that I decided to write something that would grab the reader by throat, smack them up against the wall and force them to carry on reading. Thing is, people don’t like being grabbed by the throat. It’s rude. It is important to write a compelling opening chapter – hopefully all the chapters are compelling – but the real danger is to overdo it.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie has one of my favourite opening scenes. In some ways it conforms to typical opening chapters in that it introduces the main characters and sets the tone of the novel. But Spark also touches (ever so delicately) on the themes that recur throughout the book and give it the sense of tightness and cohesion that we’re all striving for. The ‘pay off’ of a really great opening chapter is not only that the reader (or editor or agent) will keep on reading, but also the delight as the thematic structure unfolds chapter by chapter. This elevates the enjoyment of the book beyond the mystery of the plot.

Having written only one book (but many awful opening chapters) I am not the best person to be giving advice. However it may not be a bad idea to consider whether the first chapter you wrote should be the first chapter of your book. You could be denying yourself the opportunity to write something as brilliant as Muriel Spark. Finally, don’t try too hard. You may not be blessed with a charitable editor like I was.

Published by Random House, an extract to the author’s own opening chapters can be viewed below. View The Dubious Salvation Of Jack V. on Amazon

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