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’ll 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 insist 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 jumped up.
‘Stay away from the window.’
Two stars punctuated the wall of bandit glass fronting 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 already stood there.
‘If they had a bomb they’d not be throwing stones, would they?’ 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 rattled against the toughened glass. Because the panes grew in size from one end of the ambassador’s office to 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. Dozens of masked figures tore up the cobblestones and flung them at the embassy building. At her, Helen Gale. A phalanx of police officers pushed 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 wanted 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. The crowd streamed past below. 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. As Helen reached for her phone, the door burst open.
Jason Short, Head of Political Section and Deputy Head of Mission, was Helen’s boss. His stature was, indeed, limited: in an embassy where everyone used first names, most people called him Mr Short. He owned a colossal collection of fitted suits and silk ties and had long, thinning hair, like an ageing rock star. Short always yearned to impress Sir Leonard Lennox. The Summit would coincide with a decision in London on the appointment of the next British ambassador to Bangkok – a job to which Short aspired. Unfortunately for Helen, Jason saw office politics as a zero-sum game where 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 avoided eye contact, focusing on a point around Helen’s neck. Was he looking at the cornflowers on her cotton dress? Or 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.’
Something happened, like a colossal thunderclap above Helen’s head. She winced and brought her hands up to her ears. The lights dimmed. The computer on the ambassador’s desk clicked, flickered and began to re-boot.
The ambassador. Helen whirled round. Only a single tiny aperture interrupted the span of the toughened windows. Sir Leonard Lennox turned towards her. The top of his head had changed. Blood streamed down, dripping from his chin onto his shirt. He lifted a hand to his forehead and 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.
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If you’d like to read Blood Summit, click on the link below.