Chapter 1 of a thriller: how can you start in a way that grabs readers and keeps them gripped as the tension, and body count, mounts?
Last week I posted the prologue of my new novel, Blood Summit.
This week, you can read the first chapter. It introduces protagonist Helen Gale, a brilliant, tough counter-terrorism expert responsible for protecting G8 Presidents and Prime Ministers at the Children’s Summit in Berlin. The blurb:
Counter-terrorism expert Helen Gale has one job: to protect world leaders at a summit in the Berlin Reichstag.
But terrorists take hostage presidents, prime ministers, one hundred innocent children – and Helen’s journalist husband.
Then the executions start.
Helen’s life implodes. Yet she alone can see the truth. As special forces plan a deadly assault, she must enter the shattered hulk of the Reichstag to stop a bloodbath.
But how do you introduce these characters? How to make Chapter 1 of a thriller really compelling? Read on.
Blood Summit: the cover
Here is the text of the first chapter. You can read the prologue and the first few chapters together at my Blood Summit page.
Chapter 1 of a thriller
Helen Gale was briefing the ambassador on the Children’s Summit when the first rock hit the window.
‘The Prime Minister flies in at 1500 tomorrow,’ she said. ‘The trouble is, Air Force One is due at 1450. Obviously, the German Federal Chancellor won’t have time to greet the President of the United States at the airport.’
‘Who wants to meet a child in a sandpit?’ the ambassador said.
‘The President’s been called worse things.’
‘Not by the Chancellor. After a speech on US foreign policy. When someone’s left the microphone on.’
‘So now the big story is when they’re going to kiss and make up.’ Helen shook her head. ‘Not literally, more’s the pity.’
‘Any idea who the Germans will send to greet the PM?’
‘No,’ Helen said. ‘The No.10 press office are insisting on a cabinet minister at least.’
‘They insist? Bully for them.’ Sir Leonard Lennox ran his fingers through the white thicket of his hair, making it wilder than ever. ‘And won’t you say three p.m.? We’re not soldiers. Though sometimes I wish we – ‘
‘What the hell is that?’ The ambassador was on his feet.
‘Stay away from the window.’
Now there were two stars in the wall of bandit glass which fronted the street. Helen fought the urge to run and look out. Remember Paris. She didn’t want to be diced alive by flying shards if a bomb went off outside. But the ambassador was already standing there.
‘If they had a bomb they’d not be throwing stones, would they, now?’ The lowland burr was calm. ‘The police are moving in already.’
‘What about the intelligence warnings?’ Helen said. ‘We know G8 targets are under threat.’
‘We can’t bolt for cover each time GCHQ eavesdrops on a seditionist.’ The ambassador shook his head. ‘Come and have a look-see. It’s not every day we’re attacked by a mob.’
Salvos of stones were rattling against the toughened glass. Because the panes were larger at one end of the ambassador’s office than the other, each impact had a different tone, like a monstrous xylophone.
Helen covered the distance to the window in three strides. ‘When the ambassador instructs a lowly first secretary to break the rules, she must obey.’
‘Don’t give me that nonsense, Helen. You don’t know what rules are.’
Thousands of faces stared up at them through the summer rain. JOBS NOT BOMBS, a banner read. GLOBALISATION WITHOUT US. Most of the protesters seemed peaceful. A child on someone’s shoulders carried a placard reading CHILDREN’S SUMMIT: JUST SAY NO. Helen smiled. If you took politics seriously, you’d go mad. Like the people across the street. A dozen masked figures were tearing up the cobblestones and flinging them at the embassy building. At her, Helen Gale. A phalanx of police officers was pushing towards them through the crowd.
How could the stone-throwers be so sure they were right? Helen’s own life held no such certainties. Eight months earlier, she had been unsure whether to move to Berlin. Only Nigel’s refusal to leave London had convinced her she must go to Germany. He had told her to quit her job, stay with him, and start a family.
Helen had longed to throw herself into the arms of the only man she had ever loved. She had also felt an urge to slam the door on the only man who sometimes roused her to hatred. At last, she had come to Berlin, despising Nigel for not understanding her, and despairing at herself for not making him understand. She watched the crowd. Did she belong inside the building looking down? Or out in the street, looking up?
‘How much longer will the glass hold?’ The ambassador might have been asking when the rain would stop.
‘In theory, it’s fine. But I’d hate any demonstrators to be injured by one of their own rocks falling on their heads. I’ll call Dieter Kremp.’
‘The most arrogant man in Berlin? Good luck.’
‘I like confidence in a man, up to a point. But you – ‘ Helen wagged her finger at the ambassador as she gave the mock order ‘ – must get away from the window. I’m telling you in my official capacity as Post Security Officer.’
‘Yes, miss.’ The ambassador raised his considerable eyebrows but did not move. Helen reached for her phone. Before she could dial, the door burst open.
Jason Short, Head of Political Section and Deputy Head of Mission, was Helen’s boss. He was, indeed, limited in stature: in an embassy where first names were standard, he was widely referred to as Mr Short. He was the proud owner of a colossal collection of fitted suits and silk ties and had long, thinning hair, like an ageing rock star. Short was always keen to impress Sir Leonard Lennox, and the Summit would coincide with a decision in London on the appointment of the next British ambassador to Bangkok. This was a job to which Short aspired. Unfortunately for Helen, Jason saw office politics as a zero-sum game in which the best way to look good was to make everyone else look as bad as possible.
He stared at her.
‘What are you doing here? Don’t you know there’s a riot on?’
‘I am aware, yes,’ Helen said.
‘You’re Post Security Officer. You should be talking to the staff, reassuring them.’
‘I’m trying to call Dieter Kremp at the Summit Security Unit.’ Helen held up the phone. ‘If you’ll give me a moment.’
‘Phoning your boyfriend?’
Short was avoiding eye contact, focusing on a point around Helen’s neck. Was he looking at the cornflowers on her cotton dress? Or was he staring at her breasts? She turned to Leonard Lennox.
‘Ambassador, we’re in your way here. Shall I make this call from my office?’
The ambassador shrugged. ‘You’re not in my way. Speed is of the essence.’
At that moment, something happened. Helen’s first impression was of a colossal thunderclap directly above her head. As she winced and started to bring her hands up to her ears, the lights dimmed. There was a click as the computer on the ambassador’s desk flickered and began to re-boot.
The ambassador. Helen whirled round. The toughened windows were intact except for a single tiny hole in the glass. Sir Leonard Lennox turned towards her. There was something wrong with the top of his head. Blood was streaming down so fast she could see it dripping from his chin onto his shirt. He lifted a hand to his forehead. Then, slowly, he fell to his knees.
‘A bomb,’ he said. ‘I think I’m hurt.’
I hope you enjoyed this piece on how to write Chapter 1 of a thriller. If you would like to see how the prologue to Blood Summit is constructed, click on the link. Chapter 2 of Blood Summit shows how to use “Point of View” to raise tension and drive action.
P.S. If you would like to hear more about Blood Summit or if you enjoy fresh, original writing, you can follow me on Facebook or sign up for my weekly newsletter (you can unsubscribe anytime you wish).