by Anne R. Allen
I’ve had questions from several writers recently about how to approach a first chapter. New writers hear so many rules about what they must do in the first line, first paragraph, and first chapter that they can feel paralyzed, afraid to write a word.
Let’s hope that NaNoWriMo is helping some of you fight that paralysis!
Yes, there are a lot of rules about writing a first chapter, but the truth is there are as many ways to start your novel as there are writers.
However, some openers are better than others for enticing a new reader, and beginning writers tend to fall into tired patterns that don’t always work. I know I did. We need to remember that the modern reader expects a story to start on page one.
So don’t take these as hard and fast rules. Professional writers break them all the time. They’re just tips. But they might help you in dealing with those first chapter blues.
1) DO Write your First Chapter Last
Yes, you read that right. Stop agonizing, sketch out the first chapter and get on with writing your story. This is really important for NaNoWriMos. You could spend the whole month worrying that thing to death. Don’t.
That’s because when you’re writing your first draft, you’re writing for you. Later, you’ll edit for your reader. That’s when “the rules” can be important.
But right now, you’re telling yourself the story and getting to know your characters. So you may have a bunch of false starts and indigestible chunks of backstory. That’s normal.
You’re probably going to end up with an opening chapter that’s very different from the one you started with. Your entire first chapter may end up being one of those darlings you have to kill. (Or move to another spot in the book.)
When you edit, you can decide where the story really starts (Some writing teachers say the average student novel starts at chapter three.)
As for backstory—yes, you need it, but you can sneak bits of it into several chapters so it doesn’t choke the flow of the narrative.
2) DON’T Open with Death or Trick Your Reader with False Starts
I know the standard opening of every TV cop show involves random strangers discovering a body or getting killed. This is something that works great in drama but not in a novel. (It also provides work for a lot of new and struggling actors. 🙂 )
But whoever readers meet first in a book is the character they’ll bond with. If that person gets killed on page five, people feel cheated.
Plus starting with a death is kind of a no-no for readers and agents. Former agent Nathan Bransford says opening with a death is “a turnoff for an agent because 1) it’s just so common and 2) it can feel like a cheap way to provoke a reader. It just doesn’t quite feel earned.”
Dreams are another kind of clichéd false start. If you open with a conflict-charged scene where the princess fights a dragon in a fierce blood-and-guts battle and, just as the beast moves in for the kill…a 12 year old girl wakes up in her Disney princess bedroom, you’ve left your readers feeling cheated. They’re not going to want to read on to find out whether she got cast in the school play.
Other false starts happen often in fantasy and scifi. The author needs to do some world building, so the first chapter is about an exciting event in the life of a young king in a galaxy far, far away…who turns out to be the ancestor of the real protagonist, who we meet 300 years later in chapter two. We never meet the young king again. His story just stopped, except for a mention or two of his legendary exploits. Readers wonder what happened to the story they started with.
False starts are a big reason a reader won’t finish a book, so avoid them if you can.
3) DO Introduce the Protagonist in the First Chapter
You generally want to open a novel with a scene involving the main character.
And yes, your novel must have ONE main character. (Unless it’s a saga, in which case there will be a series of main characters, each with a defined story arc springing from the one before.)
Readers don’t need to know a huge amount about the protagonist right away, but they 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”.)
Readers usually need to know gender, age and maybe social status/ work/ position in society, but most of all, they need to know about the emotions the character is feeling in the scene—preferably emotions 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 pantsuit.”
I haven’t used any description of the protagonist, but we can tell she’s 1) female 2) a worldly city dweller who takes things in stride 3) not rich enough to take a taxi 4) employed in some way that requires wearing a suit 5) 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. This sparks empathy, so we care what happens to her.
4) DON’T Start with Dialogue, Especially Reader-Feeder
Former agent Nathan Bransford says, “I’m not much of a fan of starting a novel off with unanchored dialogue. It’s hard to start investing before we know where we are, who the characters are, and how we should be contextualizing the conversation.”
There’s also the problem that newbies tend to use dialogue for “As-you-know, Bob” passages like this:
“It’s getting dark, Alice,” said Bob with a shiver. “You may be my big sister, but I don’t think you know where you’re going. We could get lost in this dark, scary forest if we don’t get back to our cozy suburban home before nightfall.”
“We can’t stop now, Bob,” Alice said boldly. “As you know, we are looking for the lair of the evil Dragon of Amazonia and we must slay him before morning or he will destroy the entire Kingdom of Mall.”
Conversations like this are sometimes necessary in plays and TV scripts. Preferably not using the kind of bad writing I’ve inflicted on you here, 🙂 but it’s not the way to hook a book reader. That’s why we call it “reader-feeder” dialogue.
In a novel, we can show our readers all the dark scary forests we want. We don’t need the characters to describe them.
5) DO Put More than One Character in your First Chapter
We’re all tempted at some point to open with our protagonist in a car, on a plane, or trekking through the ruined countryside after a battle…and musing about stuff. She’s thinking about the dragon she just killed, or recapping the catastrophe she’s escaping from, or who she’s going to meet at Starbucks.
But nothing happens on the page. There is no interaction with other characters, so nothing happens.
Some people call this the “Robinson Crusoe” opener. Newbies are tempted to write them because they seem to flow naturally and you can get a whole lot of backstory in there.
But readers hate them.
The classic example of this is the “alarm clock” opener where you see the protagonist waking up and getting dressed in the morning.
This is the chapter you cut when you’re editing. It’s throat clearing. Writing it can help the author get to know the protagonist, but the reader wants a story.
Stories usually require two or more people. If not, your main character has to be dealing with serious obstacles and maybe talking to a deflated volleyball like Tom Hanks on that desert island.
6) DON’T Put in too Many, Either: Avoid Crowds and Battles
Lots of new writers are led astray by the rule that you should start a book “in media res” (literally, “in the middle of the thing”.)
And they know they need conflict.
So they start the story in the middle of the battle between the Trolls and the Orcs and we see four different hand-to hand combats going on and gallons of spurting blood and we have no idea who to root for because all these people are so frenzied, and awful things are happening to every one of them and…who is this story about, anyway?
As I said above, every story needs ONE protagonist. Yes, books can be about groups, but one of them has to be the hero.
So introduce us to the protagonist in a manageable scene. Otherwise it’s like walking into a mall, dance club, or a huge cocktail party. There are so many people, the reader can’t zero in on one to care about.
If you want to open with a war, 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.
That’s conflict, but you have a reasonable number of people to get acquainted with.
7) DO Let Us Know Where We Are
While you don’t want to give a ton of physical description, readers do need to know what planet/historical time period they’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 it’s best to limit the descriptions to the absolute necessities in the first chapter. Most new writers tend to tell way too much about their fantasy world up front. Tell just enough to allow the reader to picture the scene that’s taking place without slowing the action.
8) DON’T Equate Conflict with Violence: Create Real Tension that Propels the Story
A lot of new writers confuse conflict with violence. That’s one of the main reasons for those opening battle scenes, deaths, and murders.
But any kind of conflict can create tension. It can be as simple as two children in the back seat of a car on a road trip arguing over who saw the Idaho license plate first. And that can lead to conflict between Mom and Dad whether to try to make it to Cleveland or stop in a motel now. Which leads to finding the dead body in the pick-up with the Idaho plates…etc.
What readers need is conflict that sparks more tension, which in turn creates more conflict, which finally propels the story to the end.
In the Hunger Games, the conflict in the opening scene is fear about who will be chosen for the games. But the larger conflict is with the 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?
9) DO Let us Know What the Protagonist Wants
We need to know what your main character wants in the present scene, 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.)
The reader needs to know the protagonist’s ultimate goal, like finding true love. Or taking a magical jewelry item to Mount Disaster to destroy it forever. Or finding out who murdered Colonel Mustard in the library with the candlestick.
This overarching goal doesn’t always show up in the first chapter, but readers do need to see some goal in the first chapter that will lead to that ultimate goal to be reached in the climax.
10) DON’T Take Your Reader on a Nature Walk
I call this the MFA opener. People who have been taught in creative writing classes to bring all five senses into every single scene can fall into a habit of overwriting. Writing guru Larry Brooks, writing on Jane Friedman’s blog called this the “most common entry-level mistake in the writing game.”
What happens is the author puts so much energy into lovely words and lush images that the first page becomes a lyrical prose poem. We see every dewy leaf on the tree outside the window, hear every twittering bird song, smell the newly cut grass on the suburban lawn, taste the sweetness of the maple syrup and pancakes being served downstairs, feel the silky texture of the bedsheets.
But there’s no story.
There is a place for lush prose, but keep it to a minimum until you introduce a character or two and provide some source of tension.
You want to introduce tone and theme in your first chapter, but do it with a few bold strokes. William Gibson did that brilliantly with the opening line of Neuromancer, the novel that defined cyberpunk:
“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”
He gives setting, mood, tone, and theme in 15 words. It can be done.
So yes, a first chapter is hard to write because there’s so much you need to include, but you also don’t want to include too much. But it will be much easier to write once you’ve got the rough draft of the whole story, so don’t agonize and write it last. You’ll thank me.
And for tips on writing that very first line, check out Ruth’s post on How to Write a Great First Sentence.
by Anne R. Allen (@annerallen) November 3, 2019
What about you, scriveners? Do you agonize over first chapters? Have you tried writing the first chapter last? What tips can you give for writing a first chapter?
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