The Opening Chapter Reveals a Secret Vow

A novel’s opening chapter makes a promise, a secret vow that says, “This is what you can expect from me.”

The chapters that follow better fulfill that promise, or the author will suffer the consequences with low-ratings, bad reviews, or their name on the Don’t Not Read list.

Yes, the promise is that important. It’s how we build and maintain an audience. It’s how we climb the proverbial ladder of success. It’s how we keep readers hungering for more. This solemn vow can NEVER be broken.

So far this month I’ve read three novels (all 5 stars). I average about one novel per week, along with nonfiction (craft books or true crime). None of my recent reads landed within my preferred genres of psychological thrillers, dark & gritty mysteries, and serial killer thrillers, but I feel it’s important for writers to venture outside their genres from time to time.

For my next read, I wavered between WIN by Harlen Coben or Book 2 of a serial killer thriller series from one of my auto-buy authors. I devoured Book 1 in a couple days, and I’d been dyin’ to read Book 2 for a while now, so I bought the $9.99 ebook. Immediately, the author transported me to a serial killer’s lair with the protagonist bound and helpless. I was enthralled. As I said, I’d been looking forward to this novel for a while and the opener didn’t disappoint.

Without sharing the title, I’ll show you how the writer sucked me into the scene.

Darkness.

It swirled around him deep and thick, eating the light and leaving nothing behind but an inky void. A fog choked his thoughts—the words tried to come together, tried to form a cohesive sentence, to find meaning, but the moment they seemed close, they were swallowed up and gone, replaced by a growing sense of dread, a feeling of heaviness—his body sinking into the murky depths of a long-forgotten body of water.

Moist scent.

Mildew.

Damp.

[Protagonist] wanted to open his eyes.

Had to open his eyes.

They fought him though, held tight.

His head ached, throbbed.

A pulsing pain behind his right ear—at his temple too.

“Try not to move, [Protagonist’s name]. Wouldn’t want you to get sick.”

The voice was distant, muffled, familiar.

[Protagonist] was lying down.

Cold steel beneath the tips of his fingers.

He remembered the shot then. A needle at the base of his neck, a quick stab, cold liquid rushing under his skin into the muscle, then—

Gripping, tense, love the story rhythm, the way he pauses at just the right moment. I could not flip the pages fast enough. Lovin’ every second of it!

And then…

In the next chapter, I find out it was all a dream. Infuriated, I almost whipped my Kindle across the room. One of my auto-buy authors wrote this thriller, and I expected him to fulfill the promise he made to me. Instead, he cheated. I was so disappointed, I refused to keep reading. He’d broken my trust. He let me down.

Sounds harsh, doesn’t it? But that’s exactly how I felt.

The emptiness he inflicted left me hungering for a visceral, gritty, serial killer thriller, one that would fulfill its promise.

I downloaded thriller number two.

Without revealing the title or author, here’s a small sampling of that opener.

            I woke up from a gentle shake. My sister’s face hovered a few inches above mine, her eyes glistening wet. A grinding sound came from her jaw as it moved back and forth.

I shivered.

[Sister] put her fingers against my lips. “SSSH. Nod if you understand,” she whispered.

I nodded.

My room was freezing from the cold wind blowing in through my open window.

“The monsters are coming for us. Be very quiet. We’re escaping,” she whispered.

I nodded again, biting my lip hard to not cry.

Was there a monster in my closet? Behind my closed bedroom door?

My heart thrashed against my ribs like a bird trying to escape its cage. Why were the monsters after us?

We learn the protagonist is a child and her older sister is rescuing her from an imminent threat. Other than a few writing tics, like SSSH instead of Shh…, the author did a terrific job of showing the action. Finally, I could sink into a gripping read. Or so I thought.

The next chapter (Ch. 1) consisted of pages and pages of backstory. No plot, only backstory. The premise still intrigued me, so I kept reading. Then I hit a flashback that dragged on for several pages. The worst part? It added nothing to the main storyline.

Still, because the prologue was so good, I read on. The prologue had raised many, many story questions, and I wanted answers. But in Chapter 2, I read more pages and pages of backstory and another flashback. The next chapter was equally disappointing, with more pages of backstory and a third (fourth?) flashback. I lost count.

Whiplashed from being thrown forward, then backward, I couldn’t take it anymore and closed the book. A good premise will only take you so far. At some point, you need to deliver on the promise you made to the reader.

The third novel I bought—all in same day, I might add—began with a slow burn opener. A girl is emptying a bucket of oil into the dumpster behind Burger King. It doesn’t sound like much on the surface, but the co-authors held my interest. Which, after being burned twice in a matter of hours, wasn’t an easy task.

Here’s the opening of DEAD END GIRL by L.T. Vargus & Tim McBain:

            Corduroy pants swished between Teresa’s thighs as she crossed the parking lot. She had a headache. That drive-thru headset gave her a headache every damn time. The band squeezed her skull like an old man trying to find a ripe cantaloupe in the produce department. Pressing and pressing until her temples throbbed. When the headaches were really bad, she got the aura. And it was gonna be a bad one tonight. She could already tell.

By the time she got home, she’d be nauseous from the skull throb along with the stink of fryer grease clinging to her clothes and hair and skin. Sometimes she swore she could feel it permeating her pores.

She placed a hand under the lid of the dumpster and lifted. The overhead lights in the parking lot glinted on the surface below. It looked like water, but it wasn’t. It was oil. Every night they emptied the fryers, dumping the used oil into this dumpster. It was a disgusting task. Worse than taking out the trash on a 90-degree summer day, when the flies got real thick, and the meat went rancid almost as soon as they put it in the bin.

It was dead out. No traffic. No noise at all but her fiddling with the dumpster and the bucket.

Her skin crawled a little whenever she was out here this late. In the dark. In the quiet. A feeling settled into the flesh on her back and shoulders, a cold feeling, a feeling like after watching one of those scary movies when she was a teenager. It might have been a thrill while she was watching, but later on that night she’d always get spooked. She’d tremble in bed, too terrified to walk down the hall to pee. The house never seemed so ominously still as it did on those nights. Anyhow, she couldn’t stand to watch horror movies anymore. Her weak stomach couldn’t handle the gore.

Bending over the metal cart she’d wheeled along with her, Teresa scooped one of the buckets of used fryer oil and balanced it on the edge of the dumpster. She tipped the bucket and watched as the gallons of brown grease oozed into the dumpster, disrupting the smoothness.

Settled at the bottom of the bucket, there were clumps and chunks. Burned bits of fries and chicken tender crumbs. They splatted and splashed into the pool of liquid that looked black in the night.

That’s when Teresa saw it. Something rising out of the oil, disturbing the otherwise unblemished surface.

Intriguing, right? Most importantly, the authors kept their promise. Elated, I could not flip pages fast enough, savoring favorite passages, the story rhythm and pace pitch-perfect. And now, I have a new favorite series. 🙂

Come morning, I felt bad about dissin’ my auto-buy author. Maybe he had a reason to break the don’t-open-with-a-dream rule. Could the last line of the first paragraph indicate a dream?

…his body sinking into the murky depths of a long-forgotten body of water.

In hindsight, maybe. Probably. But it’s too subtle. Nonetheless, I grabbed my Kindle and kept reading. Sure enough, he used the dream sequence to show the affect it had on the protagonist, who’s been suffering nightmares after a serial killer slipped through his grasp. The dream relates to the plot because that serial killer is back.

Do I agree with the dream opening? No, but I’ll keep reading because I know this author delivers each and every time and his writing speaks to me. But what if I wasn’t a fan? What if I’d chosen the book at random? He would’ve lost me. See what I’m sayin’? It’s a risky move.

We spend a lot of time perfecting our opening pages, polishing them till they shine, but our job doesn’t end there. We must follow through in subsequent chapters by setting up scenes, paying them off, setting up more, paying off more.

Other than that crucial promise, your solemn vow to the reader, a few other takeaways are…

  • Don’t start with a dream sequence unless the reader knows it’s a dream AND you’ve got a damn good reason to do it.
  • Go easy with backstory. Sprinkled it in over time.
  • Avoid flashbacks unless they’re absolutely necessary. Most times they’re not.
  • Don’t tell the reader what happened in the past. Trust us to figure it out on our own.
  • A great premise only works if you deliver on that promise.
  • If a slow burn opener works for your story, use it. Every novel doesn’t need a lightning-fast opener to draw and hold interest.

If you missed Jim’s post yesterday, read it (and the comment section!) for speed bumps that stop the reader.

How many chapters do you read before giving up on a novel?

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About Sue Coletta

Sue Coletta is an award-winning crime writer and an active member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers. Feedspot and Expertido.org named her Murder Blog as “Best 100 Crime Blogs on the Net.” She also blogs at the Kill Zone (Writer's Digest "101 Best Websites for Writers") and Writers Helping Writers. Sue lives with her husband in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire and writes two psychological thriller series, Mayhem Series and Grafton County Series (Tirgearr Publishing) and is the true crime/narrative nonfiction author of PRETTY EVIL NEW ENGLAND: True Stories of Violent Vixens and Murderous Matriarchs (Rowman & Littlefield Group). Currently on submission, her latest true crime project revolves around a grisly local homicide. For the spring 2022 semester, Sue will be teaching a virtual course about serial killers at EdAdvance in CT and a condensed version for the Central Virginia Chapter and National Sisters In Crime. Equally fun was when she appeared on the Emmy award-winning true crime series, Storm of Suspicion. Learn more about Sue and her books at https://suecoletta.com

47 thoughts on “The Opening Chapter Reveals a Secret Vow

  1. Good morning, Sue. Great post.

    Thanks for the examples and reminders of vows kept and vows unfulfilled. You’ve made me decide to go back to my WIP and restudy my opening.

    Hope the next time you don’t have to buy 3 books to find one.

    Have a great day!

  2. Different strokes, Sue. For me it’s all about Story. The writer either grounds me in the setting and pulls me into the story or s/he doesn’t. If that doesn’t happen in the first page or two, I’m gone.

    But if I’m as grounded in the setting and intrigued by the tension as I was in the first excerpt you used, I’d have continued reading as the protagonist exited the dream, no problem.

    If memory serves, I’ve never used a dream sequence myself as an opening. But I did open one novel (I think it was Jonas Peach) with a captive character who had just awakened, lying naked on a cold, smooth surface in a completely dark room who believed she must be dreaming. Unfortunately for her, she wasn’t.

    • You have more patience than I, Harvey. If I feel tricked or cheated, that’s it for me. The only reason I went back to my auto-buy author’s book was because I’m a fan of his work. Sure enough, the thriller is just as amazing as Book 1. I still don’t think he needed to open with a dream, but I’ll forgive him this one time. 🙂

      Jonas Peach sounds awesome!

  3. Thanks for sharing, Sue. I wondered for a second why you weren’t revealing the name of the author who disappointed you and then was howling when you presented the reason why. It would have been a downer for me, too.

    I don’t read a set number of chapters before I reach a “make or break” point. Mine is one-fifth of the book. I have a pretty good sense of whether the story and the manner in which it is told is going to do it for me. Like you, I was recently unpleasantly surprised, though I didn’t have the impulse to frisbee my precious. Well, I might have thought about it for a second, but I resisted.

    Have a great week, Sue!

    • Hahaha. “frisbee my precious” The struggle is real! 🙂

      One-fifth of the book is more than fair, Joe. I give it about three chapters, four if the opener is good. If the author can’t fully invest me in the story by then, I move on.

      Thanks. Hope you have a great week, too, SJ!

  4. Long ago, I heard this “guideline” that said to take 100, subtract your age, and that’s how many pages you “owed” an author before abandoning a book. Needless to say, authors don’t have very long to capture me if I follow that guideline.

    • I’ve never heard that, Terry. Interesting. That means I should give 45-46 pages before I abandon the book. Strangely, the number isn’t far off.

  5. Sue, thanks for this great reminder that the author makes a promise to the reader and must keep it or risk wrath. Excellent examples. Too bad they went off the rails.

    As a child and younger adult, I used to feel an obligation to finish every book I read. After all, the author put work into it and I should give them the benefit of the doubt. Sometimes the payoff was slow in coming but was eventually worth it. Sometimes not. But…

    Like Terry, my patience is shrinking with age. Too many books to read and not enough time to waste on bad ones.

    Good reading and good writing, Sue!

    • Thanks, Debbie! I had more patience years ago. But now, I protect my reading time. It’s too precious to me. Life’s too short to read disappointing books. The nice thing is, all readers vary. Maybe some don’t mind a gazillion flashbacks and pages of backstory. Other writers are the toughest critics. Hey, at least I wound up with two superb reads out of three. Thank God I gave auto-buy author a second chance. It’s an amazing thriller.

  6. Sue, I feel your pain here. It’s so hard when a book doesn’t keep its promises. I’m not a fan of prologues (though of course they can work) because they can feel like a bait-and-switch, narrative tension wise.

    I’m also not a fan of lots of backstory upfront, though I’ve seen that it’s an element of a lot of modern cozies, to give the reader the backstory set-up from the get go. Still, I prefer to salt it in as needed. I like my fiction to be in the moment as much as possible, to hold me in its fictive dream which feels real (and doesn’t suddenly turn out to be a dream within a dream, if you get my drift) even after I close the book.

    I’m still guilty of giving books that don’t work for me too much time. I rarely don’t finish a book, though it might take me weeks to finish one that I could have read in just days because I’m not motivated to keep reading, but feel duty bound to do so. Life’s too short. I think a three chapter rule is the way to go.

    Of course, that doesn’t take into account the books that lose you in the middle. Material for a follow up post perhaps? 🙂

    This was a great post to start off this Monday. Thank you! Have a fine day.

    • “I like my fiction to be in the moment as much as possible, to hold me in its fictive dream which feels real (and doesn’t suddenly turn out to be a dream within a dream, if you get my drift) even after I close the book.”

      Yes! Exactly, Dale. If I read all the way to the middle of novel, I’ll finish it even if the author loses me. At that point, I’ve invested time and have bonded with the characters. If the author fails to deliver, I just won’t read their next book. I won’t review, either. I’ve only left one bad review in my life, but the author was a big-shot celebrity who didn’t think craft rules applied to him because every book sailed to the top of the NY Times list. Even then, I gave him three stars. He deserved one.

  7. Good morning, Sue, and thanks for a great post to start the work week.

    I don’t have a particular number of pages I’ll read before I put a book down, but if I start to think that doing the laundry would be more interesting than continuing to read, I know it’s time to stop.

    I’ve been thinking about starting a book with a play rehearsal scene where the protagonist is handcuffed and lying on the floor with a couple of bad guys leaning over her. Of course, the reader doesn’t know it’s a rehearsal until the director calls out, “Cut!” at the end of the chapter. Would that cause a reader to be disappointed? Should I “frisbee” (thanks for the word, Joe) that idea?

    • Yup, L. Sprague deCamp’s book, circa 1950, warns against dreams that pull the rug out from under the reader, either up front, or, Crom forbid, at the very end.

      That said, I did put a dream sequence in my historical gizmo:
      Hitler lay awake in the dimly lit room for a long time that night; how long he wasn’t sure, hovering between wakefulness and dozing. He turned over several times before finding a comfortable position. A little later, he heard whispering. [Der Failure is now asleep, and has a hideous, richly-deserved nightmare.]

  8. I am reminded of the opening line of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca:

    Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.

    That’s fine. Told us right up front. Unlike a YA I started with a gripping opening sequence, only to find out at the end it was a dream. Let me say this: it’s not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force. (h/t Dorothy Parker). I did not read on.

    2 or 3 chapters, max, to get me to read on. Unless, like you, I trust the author because of past experience. Then maybe another 2 or 3.

    • it’s not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.

      Hahaha. Exactly, Jim! If my husband wasn’t in the room, my Kindle would’ve been toast. He calmed the beast within. 😉

  9. I think the writers of thrillers and killers are a violent lot. All this talk of throwing books and electronic devices across rooms and through windows might make a person hesitant to be in your company! ?

    After reading thousands of books, many several times, I have been disappointed in some, but have never been tempted to throw one.

    I recently read a recommended book. I read through the night, and read it again two days later. And again four days after that. This is why I read, to live in a different world and have those people become so real that I’m sorry to have to leave them. That I wonder what happened after the book ended. I think this is why series like Bridgerton are so popular. Weak writing? Probably. With a prologue and two epilogues for each book, not conforming to the “rules” of writing? Absolutely. Yet, best sellers and a TV series. One of the best sellers and prolific writers of women’s fiction writes with so many redundancies and slop, I have to struggle through the beginnings, but like millions of other readers, the story is so compelling I don’t notice the writing after a while. And that is what I hope to accomplish. The story, not the slop. ?

    So, keep up the good work, TKZers! Every day you present more valuable insight into creating story. Thanks.

    • These are great insights. It’s the story that ultimately matters. I’ve been reading through old Louis L’Amour westerns and he breaks a lot of “rules” and doesn’t live up to many modern standards (head hopping POV, redundant word use, some meandering asides, etc) but the man transports you to the old west to where you can practically smell the grass on the plains—it was perfect escapism when the pandemic started and I’ve been hooked ever since.

    • That’s great, Becky. Even if I get lost in a good read, I still notice the craft underneath. Part of that is what gets me excited for certain books and authors, and what keeps me flipping pages. The other part, of course, is the characters and plot. An argument could be made that you can’t have one without the other. 🙂

  10. Sue, I think “A novel’s opening chapter makes a promise, a secret vow that says, ‘This is what you can expect from me’” might be the best fiction writing advice ever. You have to open with a story promise. Then keep it.

    I recently re-read John Grisham’s The Firm. He opens with “The senior partner studied the resume for the hundredth time and again found nothing he disliked about Mitchell Y. McDeere, at least not on paper.” Man, does Grisham deliver on that promise. Happy Pres Day!

    • “For the hundredth time?” A bit hyperbolic for me, as one who has read “rezooms” at my job. I’ll bet no one on this planet since Adam has read a resume 100 times.PWANG!! into the wastebasket. Sorry, John.

  11. The most popular writing course I taught over the years was about that annoying first chapter. Those first promises/questions to the reader I called hooks, but the main character’s goal for the book had to be in the first chapter, too. All those promises have to be fulfilled, or the book is a failure. It’s depressing when a successful writer forgets this because they are effing Betsy Bestseller.

    Like most editors and writing teachers, I can tell if a book is worth reading as far as craft within a few pages, but I will give a book a chapter or two to show me the author knows or cares what they are doing. I stop reading at this point unless the book is such a train wreck I can’t turn away from the carnage, or it will be great fodder for writing articles.

    • You’re so right, Marilynn. It’s a shame when Big Shot Author loses what made them popular in the first place. As Jim mentioned yesterday, they phone it in rather than working hard to deliver their best book to date. I constantly try to outdo my previous titles. My name is on that cover, and that’s not something I take lightly. (Man, there’s a lot of adverbs in this comment. LOL)

  12. I deemed “A Confederacy of Dunces” wastebasket-worthy while still in the library parking lot, still on the first page. I flipped through it in search of precious, Pulitzer-level prose. Nuh-uh. PWANG!!

  13. SPOILER AHEAD

    Wanna know what’s worse than opening with It Was All A Dream? Well, ENDING with it.

    Yep, I read an entire page-turning psychological thriller with huge promises of intrigue and deception and danger only to get to the final chapter and learn the entire novel was a dream.

    Every Writer’s Digest How To Make It As A Real Writer warns you against this. In fact, they say your manuscript will be instantly rejected. However, if you’re a hot bestseller in the fad niche of domestic thrillers who’s running against a deadline, I guess it’s just fine.

    I feel obligated to spoil the book because no one should undergo the punishment I did staying up all night to read the book. It’s called When The Lights Go Out by Mary Kubica. Thank God it was from the Barnes & Noble $5 hardcovers shelf.

    It’s hard to say which book is the best I’ve ever read but this one was clearly the worst.

    • Wow, Philip! You invested time and energy into a novel to find out it was all a dream? I can feel my blood pressure rising just thinkin’ about it. I would be furious, and that author would go straight to my Do Not Read list. Thanks for the title. I’ll be sure never to bother reading it.

  14. The cover of your book also represents, in a way, a microcosm of the entire work. Think twice before adding, for example, a sexier, more seductive cover image than the prose can ever deliver. If it’s a bodice ripper cover, an actual bodice must be rent within. I’m not speaking only of romances, but other genres, as well.

    • Hahaha. The woman is dead on my cover. I don’t write romance. I write psychological thrillers/serial killer thrillers. This killer creates beautiful crime scenes, so maybe it’s good thing if you find her sexy. LOL

  15. I finished a book yesterday from a NYT bestselling author. It was an International Thriller and series book 11 released last week (how’s that for clues!). The entire audiobook was nearly 16 hours. Every other chapter was either present-day or 12 years ago. I said out loud at one point, “would you just finish one of these stories!”
    The author used the technique for pace and tension, but I didn’t like it. I’ll still buy the next book in this series as I like the protag, but if he did every book this way, this would have been my last.

    • Ugh. That would annoy me, too, Alec. Some novels don’t translate well to audio, and continual flashbacks/flashforwards must be especially tiresome. It takes a skilled hand to pull off two different timelines. One of the best examples of someone who did it well is The Curse She Wore by Jordan Dane. Love, love, love that book.

    • Right, Sue Ann. Earlier would be better, so we don’t lose any new-to-you readers, but we must keep that promise made in the opener. A jump cut–a scene that begins in the opener and ends at the first plot point, midpoint, or climax–works well. A dream opener is a risky move.

  16. Great post. In your first example I would’ve kept reading even after I learned it was a dream. The second one, no. And like Terry according to the formula a writer doesn’t get too many pages before I toss it. There are too many good books out there to waste time on one I don’t enjoy.

    • I did return to the first novel, and it’s excellent. Still… You’re right, Patricia. With so many books to choose from nowadays, it’s easy for readers to move on if something irks them.

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