Let’s face it: first chapters are hard.
Other writers know what I mean. You sit there staring at the first page … the blank computer screen … trying to figure out how to start.
When writing your first draft, you’re writing for yourself—getting to know your characters and their world. You should let everything spill out on the page free of your inner editor’s censorship. You have to get it out and onto the page.
Revision is a different story. There’s a whole lot that ends up in that first-draft chapter that was extraneous info-dump that needs to be cut, but not deleted, because you can enrich the story later by scattering it through the book.
You’re going to end up with an opening chapter that’s much different from the one you started with. It’s possible your entire original Chapter One may end up being one of those darlings you have to kill.
I usually write the final draft of my first chapter last. That’s because I won’t know exactly what needs to be in there until I’ve got the ending all polished up, but I didn’t know that when I first started writing.
An ideal first chapter should do the following things:
1) Introduce the main character(s)
Most writers start with an opening scene involve the protagonist on the assumption that whoever the reader meets first in a book is the character they’ll bond with. They don’t need to know a huge amount about the MC right away, but they need to know enough to care. We probably need to know gender and approximate age, but most of all, we need to know the emotions the character is feeling in the scene—preferably something the reader can identify with.
Here’s how I started Life As We Knew It:
She stood before the safe, one hand beckoning, the other holding the cloth-wrapped bundle. Her face hid behind the veil, but her large dark eyes were sad and angry. Shane slid up the wall, bracing himself in the corner, scrubbing tears from his stinging eyes with the heels of his hands. Time had come.
It had been years since he’d thought about God, let alone prayed. His heart had been certain that there was no god. Yet a verse floated up from some long-forgotten Sunday School.
… your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
“This is my kingdom come,” Shane whispered. “What I earned on earth and in heaven.”
Her eyes demanded his obedience and his legs complied. The locked safe was no deterrent as he knew the combination. Guns on the right, clips on the left. The 9mm felt light in his hand. Unloaded! He always unloaded when he came home from a trip. The clip slid easily home and the gun felt right. Heavy. Final.
She stood to his left as she had that night, clutching the bundle to her chest. Shane raised the gun as if to fire at her, but then turned it, put the barrel up under his chin, deep in the curve of his jaw and pulled the trigger.
I haven’t used any description of the protagonist, but we can tell he’s
- someone very familiar with guns
- distressed about something to do with a Muslim woman
- has some religious knowledge, but is not religious himself
- is suicidal
- and we can infer from the clues that he was probably a soldier in the Middle East
We can also identify with his distress at dealing with a horrific memory. My brother tells me that he HAD to KNOW what was coming in the paragraph that followed. And that’s what makes Shane a powerful character and gives a shove to the first chapter.
2) Make us care enough to go on a journey with that character.
This is trickier than it sounds. What makes us care? There’s no formula and no one thing will work for every reader in every genre.
Agents and editors are always telling us they want a “sympathetic” protagonist, but that doesn’t necessarily mean somebody you’d like to have as a friend.
Shallow, narcissistic Scarlett O’Hara has fascinated readers for nearly a century. Would you want sociopathic serial killer Dexter Morgan as your best friend? Sherlock Holmes frequently drives John Watson to distraction. Even Jane Austen’s Emma is tart-tongued.
You don’t have to present us with a protagonist as flawed as those characters, but perfect characters aren’t that much fun. Characters need to have weaknesses. I led with Shane’s weaknesses in Life As We Knew It because those weaknesses make his strengths all the more powerful.
You can’t please everyone all of the time. Some readers like a kick-ass-first, ask-questions-later character, while others prefer a more thoughtful, honorable hero. It will depend on genre and tone. It’s probably best of avoid an arrogant, whiny victim “hero”. A hero needs to be brave in some way, so let us see the potential for that right away.
3) Set tone.
You don’t want to start out a romantic comedy with a gruesome murder scene, or open a thriller with light, flirtatious banter. You want to immerse your reader in the book’s world from the opening paragraph. Since novelists don’t have music and visuals to set the scene, we need to use words to convey tone.
Long descriptions of weather or setting aren’t in fashion these days, but broad descriptive strokes can offer a lot in terms of setting the mood of your story. In Mirklin Wood, I set the mood with a rainstorm of epic proportion that makes it clear that magic is imposing a negative effect on the physical world. It conveys a heavy, oppressive mood that draws the reader into the world of Daermad.
4) Let us know the theme.
If you’re going to be dealing with a particular theme, you don’t want to hit readers over the head with it. Foreshadowing can provide hints from the first sentence.
Look at how William Gibson began Neuromancer, the novel that defined cyberpunk: “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” Gibson lets us know from the get-go this is about the dark side of technology.
In Madeleine L’Engle’s The Young Unicorns she begins by setting the stage:
Winter came early to the city that year. Josiah Davidson, emerging from the subway, his arms loaded with schoolbooks, shivered in the dank.November rain that blew icily against his face and sent a trickle down the back of his neck. He didn’t see three boys in black jackets and moved out of a sheltering doorway and stalked him.
You know right away we’re dealing with an urban environment, adverse weather and threatening thugs.
5) Let us know where we are.
Readers don’t need a ton of physical description, but they need to know what planet/historical time period we’re in.
World building is absolutely critical in science fiction and fantasy, but in the first pages limit it to the absolute necessities and fill in the details later. Most new writers tend to tell us way too much about their fantasy world up front. You want to tell us just enough to allow us to picture the scene that’s taking place, but not bog down the action.
6) Introduce the antagonist.
An antagonist is someone/something that keeps the protagonist from his goal. You may think that an antagonist is not necessary if you’re writing a romantic comedy, but there is a difference between an antagonist and a villain.
An antagonist can be a whole society, an addiction, a judicial system, or anything that might thwart a hero from achieving his goal. A particular villain embodied as an individual Big Bad doesn’t not need to exist in a many plots, but something has to trip up your protagonist in order for his/her story to be interesting.
7) Ignite conflict.
We need conflict not only in the opening scene, but we need to see an over-arching tension that will drive your plot.
In the Hunger Games, the burning question in the opening scene is who will be chosen for the games. But the larger conflict is with the Hunger Games themselves. When the conflict of the opening scene is resolved, we still keep turning pages because of the underlying tension from a bigger story question—how will Katniss survive?
Conflict does not have to mean an actual battle. In fact, starting in the middle of a battle can be awfully confusing for a reader. It’s better to start with something like the heroine preparing for battle by stealing her brother’s armor after her father forbids her to fight.
8) Give us a goal: tell us what your protagonist wants.
Readers need to know pretty early in the story what your hero’s ultimate goal might be. In The Willow Branch, we know that Padraig’s ultimate goal is to find the One’s True King. In Life As We Know It, the ultimate goal isn’t stated, but you can infer that Shane wants his family to survive the apocalypse.
The ultimate goal doesn’t always show up in Chapter One, but we do need a goal in chapter one that will lead to the ultimate goal. Shane has to survive his suicide attempt if he’s going to save his town and family, for example.
9) Present an exciting, life-changing inciting incident.
This incident has to cause something to happen that will propel us to the next scene—and the one after that—and through the entire book. Think of it as the explosion that launches the rocket of your story.
This one is easier for some genre writers. If you’re writing a mystery, you can find a dead body and the story is off and running. In a romance the female protagonist meets the object of her future affections and absolutely hates him, vowing to keep him from whatever his goal might be.
In other genres, it may be tough to get the inciting incident close to the opener. I couldn’t end the world as we know it in the first chapter of Life As We Knew It, because I needed the readers to care about the characters and I couldn’t figure a way to do both at the same time. Just remember, most readers aren’t going to admire your lovely prose until you’ve got a story going.
10) Introduce the other major characters.
“Major” is the key here. Don’t let minor characters upstage the hero in the opener. You’re probably better off without any minor characters in the opening scene. We’ve got so much stuff to cram in there, we don’t have much room for the maid/sentinel/pizza deliverer character who opens so many dramas.
The Willow Branch operates in two time periods. In the first scene of the past timeline, Prince Maryn is killed, leaving Lord Deryk, who is a major character in that timeline. In the first scene of the present timeline, I introduce Padraig and Ryanna, main characters of that timeline. I needed to enter a minor character, a seer whose prophesy sends Padraig on his quest for the king, but pretty much everyone else in the opening chapter is faceless and voiceless because they aren’t all that important to the future plot.
I like colorful characters and they show up from time to time in my books, but I try to keep these minor players out of my opener, so that readers don’t end up expecting them for the rest of the series when they will only be there for that brief time.
We have all ready a bestseller or a dozen that doesn’t follow these rules. Don’t ever take something I suggest as a hard and fast rule because what works for me may not work for you. These rules are suggestions. If your prose are so mesmerizing the reader doesn’t notice that you info-dumped them in Chapter 1, lovely. Most writers, however, are just not that good.
If your opener doesn’t do any of the above suggestions, just try this experiment. Ignore chapters 1 & 3 and look at Chapter 3. Does Chapter 3 give you a better beginning? Start there. Then feed readers the info from the first two chapters a little at a time later on in the book.