by Anne R. Allen
Let’s face it: first chapters are hard.
When you’re 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.
But when you’re revising, it’s a different story. You’ll need to cut a whole lot of info you’ve put into the opening chapters. Don’t delete anything—save it for later to scatter through the book.
You’re going to end up with an opening chapter that’s way different from the one you started with. And that’s as it should be. In fact 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.
An ideal first chapter should do the following things:
1) Introduce the main character.
You want to open with a scene involving the protagonist. Yes, I know the standard opening of every cop show on TV involves random strangers discovering a body or getting killed. This is something that works great in drama but not in a novel.
Whoever we meet first in a book is the character we’ll bond with. If that person gets killed on page five, we feel cheated.
We don’t need to know a huge amount about the MC right away, but we need to know enough to care. You can be very sketchy about looks (all Jane Austen told us about Elizabeth Bennett is that she had “fine eyes”.)
We probably need to know gender, age and maybe social status/work/position in society, 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 open Ghostwriters in the Sky:
“The subway car was so crowded I couldn’t tell which one of the sweaty men pressing against me was attached to the hand now creeping up my thigh. I should have known better than to wear a dress on a day I had to take the subway, but in the middle of a New York heat wave, I couldn’t face another day in a pants suit.”
I haven’t used any description of the protagonist, but we can tell she’s
- a worldly city dweller who takes things in stride
- not rich enough to take a taxi
- employed in some way that usually requires wearing a suit
- way too polite for her own good.
We can also identify with her distress at being groped. She’s in an uncomfortable situation and we hope for her to escape without harm.
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 like to have as a friend.
Scarlett O’Hara is shallow and narcissistic, but readers have found her fascinating for nearly a century. Dexter Morgan is a sociopathic serial killer—not exactly a guy you’d want for a BFF. And who’d actually like to spend time with Lisbeth Salander? Even Jane Austen’s Emma is something of a witch.
You don’t have to present us with a protagonist as flawed as those characters. But they do need to have weaknesses. My sleuth, Camilla Randall, is terminally polite, and always believes things are going to be perfectly fine, although the reader can see sure-fire trouble looming.
Some people like a kick-ass-first, ask-questions-later character, and some prefer a more thoughtful, honorable hero. It will depend on genre and tone.
What readers generally don’t find sympathetic is arrogance, whining, or a victim mentality. 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 that 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.
My above opener is light and humorous. The sticky weather echoes Camilla’s sticky situation. In another kind of book, this could be a situation of grave danger, or something that would cause the heroine extreme distress. Then describing the humid weather in terms of darkness or heaviness would convey a different mood.
But you don’t have to use weather or description to set tone. Sharp, staccato dialog can convey danger, or a self-deprecating narrative voice can show we’re going to be in for some laughs.
4) Let us know the theme.
If you’re going to be dealing with a particular theme, you don’t want to hit us over the head with it, but give us some foreshadowing. Great authors can do this in 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.
I start my mystery Sherwood, Ltd with this paragraph:
“Anybody can become an outlaw. For me, all it took was a little financial myopia, an inherited bad taste in spouses, a recession—and there I was, the great-granddaughter of newspaper baron H. P. Randall, edging around in alley-shadows, about to become a common thief.”
You know right away we’re dealing with a theme of poverty, outlaws and thieves—echoing the Robin-Hoody title.
5) Let us know where we are.
Don’t give us a ton of physical description, but we need to know what planet/historical time period we’re in.
In spite of everything you’ve heard about showing-not-telling, it’s perfectly all right to give the reader some basic information in a straightforward way, as Jeffrey Eugenidies does in Middlesex:
“I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.”
In SciFi and Fantasy especially, you need to do some world-building, but 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.
The concept of an “antagonist” is probably the hardest thing for most new writers to grasp.
You may think that if you’re not writing a mystery about a sadistic serial killer, or a spy novel where the hero must thwart the evil genius plotting to take over the world, you don’t need an antagonist.
But there’s 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. But you absolutely need one. (I found that out the hard way. I wrote a novel for 10 years that had no antagonist and I couldn’t figure out why it wouldn’t end.) The wonderful Kristen Lamb writes some of the best stuff I’ve seen on the subject of the antagonist, which she calls the Big Boss Troublemaker. Here’s one of Kristen’s great posts on the BBT.
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.
We need to know what he wants right now, which might be for the troll who just killed his companions to stop swiping at him with that pointy sword.
But we also need to know pretty early in the story what your hero really, really wants (apologies to the Spice Girls)—his ultimate goal, like maybe taking a magical jewelry item to Mount Disaster to destroy it forever.
I realize this 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.
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.
Or in a romance, the lovely Griselda can meet Lord Puddlesbury when his horse accidentally knocks down her grandfather’s vegetable cart and she vows to hate him forever.
But in other genres, it may be tough to get the inciting incident close to the opener. Do work on it, though, because everything else will seem like throat-clearing to the reader. 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. In fact, you’re 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 delivery person character who opens so many dramas.
We need to be introduced to Lord Puddlesbury fairly early on—or at least let us hear about him. Ditto Griselda’s bratty sister whose loose morals threaten to disgrace the poor but honorable family of vegetable mongers, and maybe the stalwart plowboy Jack, who has loved Griselda since childhood. But we don’t need to know about his Lordship’s groom or his tailor unless the bratty sister is going to run off with them in a scandalous ménage a trois in chapter ten.
A lot of new writers tend to clutter up the opener with colorful characters who never appear in the story again. This can irritate a reader, who expects people in the opener to re-appear and play an important role.
Hold on there, sez you. I can think of half a dozen bestsellers off the top of my head that don’t do these things.
Yup, I can too. I didn’t say these are hard and fast rules. But they’re something to aim for. If your prose is so mesmerizing the reader doesn’t notice, then more power to you. But for most of us mortals, our readers are happiest when they get as much info as possible in the opener.
If your opener doesn’t do any of this stuff—and most first drafts don’t—try this trick: try cutting off the first two chapters. Does chapter three give you a better beginning? Start there. Then feed us the info from the first two chapters a little at a time later on in the book.
How about you, scriveners? Are there any other things you absolutely want to see in an opener? Do you have hard time cramming all this stuff into chapter one?
by Anne R. Allen (@annerallen) June 9, 2013