Today, I want to talk about the first chapter. If it's been giving you trouble, you're in good company. Almost every writer moans about it at some point.
The common advise is to not sweat blood over the first chapter until you've written the bulk part of the novel. Don't spend ages on it before your plot has even kicked off, honing the words on the first page until a year's gone and you're still writing this first chapter that should be magnificent... and all the rest of your novel hasn't been written.
I'm not that hardcore and I think a writer needs dreams and a vision. Your first chapter should be something for you to read when you feel down on luck, when you doubt your ability and stamina, when everything goes wrong at the same time and you think you might never finish this story that you've sweated so long over. It should give you hope and determination to finish your story... never mind how inapt you might feel. You've a vision, right here in this chapter—so go out and write the rest.
Make a Scene by Jordan E. Rosenfeld (2008, Writer's Digest Books) has the following advise on how to craft the first chapter:
I'd argue that 3 is more editing and word mechanics than actual choosing what to write; and 4 concerns mostly word mechanics and style choices (microtension and foreshadowing), and how you end this first chapter. So let's start at the beginning, with 2) and go to 1).
- Hatch your plot in the form of your significant situation
- Introduce your protagonist and provide a brief glance into his inner and outer struggles
- Establish a distinct, rich setting and subtly evoke the senses without being overbearing.
- Set up a feeling of dramatic tension that hints at complications and conflict to come.
Introduce your protagonist and provide a brief glance into his inner and outer struggles
Your reader's about to enter your story-world through one particular set of eyes. Of course he's curious about who this person's gonna be.
What makes you choose to talk to a guy at a bus-stop? Does he look lost? Maybe one of his grocery bags's just split while he's getting small change. Or the backpack has a sticker on it that reminds you of your own days at high school.
In essence, talking to a guy at a bus-stop poses the very same question that the reader's asking: What makes your protagonist unique? How is it that he gets to be centre-stage in your manuscript?
And, having answered this question, you need to let the reader see that the protagonist is someone he'd be interested to meet—because he's about to, sentence after sentence. ('If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth', J.D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye)
I'll talk about what makes a compelling characters in a later article.
Hatch your plot in the form of your significant situation
How do you know what is your significant situation? The answer is easy: It's the one that kicks off your story. Forget about prologues for the little while you're reading this article. The inciting incident isn't some ancient God's power struggle or the sins of fathers, visited upon children. It's more immediate. It's change in your protagonist's life, right now.
By the way... when I say 'protagonist' I mean the element central to your story. This can be a person (ninety out of a hundred times it will be), a theme, or something abstract that's embodied by i.e. the relationships of citizens in a small town.
What makes the current day so special that you want to give it a place of honor in your manuscript? Readers will start exactly here. You want to give them something to remember.
Techniques of a Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain (1981, University of Oklahoma Press) gives the advise to 'Start on the day that's different'. Your status-quo changed, from accustomed routine of what had been to something new. A change happens and responding to this change, your protagonist'll spark a chain reaction down the line until he gets caught in an intolerable situation which will be your story's major conflict.
For the moment, I'll leave out discussion of 5), as it's techniques of exposition and show&tell (also later article material).
- Where/When to open
- How to open
- What to put in
- What to leave out
- How to introduce needed information
- When to close
Where/When to open
You want to open just on the brink of change (if you're too early your readers have the chance to get bored). Or with change (but try not to leave the reader disoriented; remember, he doesn't know yet where and who he is in terms of your story). Or just after the change (though be careful that you don't chunk in a huge mass of exposition later). There's no clear cut rule. Every start has the potential to get messed up, but it can also be a stepping stone into your story's abyss.
This is the moment to hook your readers. Don't waste this chance!
How to open
You'll not be the first, nor will you be the last to curse your first sentences. Welcome to the club.
Practical advise says it's good to orient your reader immediately with the four W's: Who, Where, When, and bonus points for What's Happening. A word about the 'what's happening':
What to put in
What to leave out
Don't confuse 'what's happening' with 'what's happened in the past'. You're in the story-present. Your reader needs to be oriented to what's happening right now, not about events hundreds of years past. Present action is the sweet spot. Engage the senses. Throughly ground your readers in your story's present.
But, I hear you cry out, that still doesn't tell me how I get to write this first sentence!
My own strategy is write something. Anything. Start anywhere. Don't worry, just start. Can you feel yourself getting into your story world? Good. Just write. Don't look back. Forget your awful first sentence if at all possible. Somewhen, maybe a week or two later, when you're throughly enjoying yourself, read your first page critically. Disengage as much as possible, try to look at it with reader's eyes, and watch like a hawk for the one sentence that stands out, that makes you pay attention and say to yourself 'Yes, now we're off and running!'
This sentence pinpoints the significant. What distills your story best? This is what you have to use to hook your readers. You're making them a promise.
It can be buried middle of some paragraph on the second page, or even later. You know you've found it when it either is unique ('It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen', George Orwell, 1984), unanticipated ('They shoot the white girl first', Toni Morrison, Paradise), deviates from routine or shows a change about to take place ('Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice', Gabriel Garcia Marquez, A Hundred Years of Solitude), or focuses the readers' inordinate attention on something commonplace ('Call me Ishmael', Herman Melville, Moby Dick) ...
... Or it introduces your protagonist with a little detail that makes the reader sympathize with him; or think they want to know your him (I'll talk about this later, in another article).
... Or all of the above.
When to close
Have you introduced your protagonist? Have you made him relatable? Have you oriented the reader in the here-and-now? Have you asked questions the reader will be looking to find answers to? Bonus points if your protagonist's been finding out that his world's about to turn. Then your first chapter has done its job. The only question still remains is—
Which detail do you want the reader to have at the forefront of his mind going into the next chapter? That's when you write 'Chapter 2'. I'll write a dedicated article about endings as well.
A good first chapter raises questions that beg to be answered—by reading the rest of the novel; and what hooks your reader is not the past but the future.
Now go out and conquer it.