25 Things To Know About Writing The First Chapter Of Your Novel
1. Every Book A Hook (And The First Chapter’s The Bait)
A reader walks into a bookstore. Spies an interesting book. What does she do? Picks it up. Flips to the first chapter before anything else. At least, that’s what I do. (Then I smell the book and rub it on my bare stomach in a circular motion and make mmmmmm noises.) Or, if I can find the first chapter online somewhere — Amazon, the author’s or publisher’s site, your Mom’s Myspace page — I’ll read it there. One way or another, I want to see that first chapter. Because that’s where you grab me by the balls or where you push me out the door. The first chapter is where you use me or lose me.
2. Fashionably Late To The Party
Bring the reader to the story as late you possibly can — we’re talking just before the flight leaves, just before the doors to the club are about to close, just before the shit’s gonna go down. Tension. Escalation. Right to the edge of understanding — no time to think, no time to worry, no time to ponder whether she wants to ride this ride or get off and go get a smoothie because too late, you’re mentally buckled in, motherfucker. The first chapter is the beginning of the book but it’s not the beginning of the whole story. (This is why origin stories are often the weakest iterations of the superhero tale.)
3. The Power Of A Kick-Ass Karate Chop Opening Line Kiyaaa!
A great first line is the collateral that grants the author a line of intellectual credit from the reader. The reader unconsciously commits: “That line was so damn good, I’m in for the next 50 pages.” I could probably do a whole “list of 25” on writing a strong opening line, but for now, I’ll say this: a good opening line is assertive. It’s lean and mean and cares nothing for fatty junk language or clumpy ten-gallon words. A good opening line is a promise, or a question, or an unproven idea. It says something interesting. It shows a shattered status quo. A good opening line is stone in our shoe that we cannot shake. Writing a killer first line to a novel is an art form in which there are a few masters and a great many apprentices.
4. The Gateway Drug To The Second Chapter
I’ve been to multiple Christopher Moore book talks, and each time he reveals something interesting about storytelling (and, occasionally, whale penises). At one such book talk — and this is me paraphrasing — he said something very interesting and a thing I’ve found true in my own reading experience: the more the reader reads, the more you can get them to read. Sounds obvious, maybe. But it goes like this: if you get them to read the first page, they’ll read to the second. If they can read to the first chapter, they’ll at least finish the second. If they read to page 10, they’ll go to 20, if they read to 40, they’ll stay to page 80, and so on and so forth. You’re hoping you can get them to the next breadcrumb, and as the novel’s story you space out the breadcrumbs — but early on, those first breadcrumbs (in the form of the first chapter) are in many ways the most important. Did I mention Christopher Moore knows a lot about whale penises?
5. Your Protagonist Has One Job: To Make Me Give A Fuck
If I get to the end of the first chapter and I don’t get a feel for your main character — if she and I are not connected via some gooey invisible psychic tether — I’m out. I don’t need to like her. I don’t need to know everything about her. But I damn sure need to care about her. Make me care! Crank up the volume knob on the give-a-fuck factor. Let me know who she is. Make me afraid for her. Speak to me of her quest. Whisper to me why her story matters. Give me that and I’ll follow her through the cankered bowels of Hell.
6. Give Her The Talking Stick
I want the character to talk. Give me dialogue. Dialogue is sugar. Dialogue is sweet. Dialogue is easy like Sunday morning. And dialogue is the fastest way to me getting to know the character. Look at it this way: when you meet a new person do you want to sit, watching them like Jane Goodall spying on a pair of rutting chimps from behind a duck blind? Or do you want to go up and have a conversation?
7. Conflict Is The Key That Unlocks A Reader’s Heart
Yeast thrives on sugar. Monkeys eat bananas. I guzzle gin-and-tonics. And conflict is what feeds the reader. Begin the book with conflict. Big, small, physical, emotional, whatever. Conflict disrupts the status quo. Conflict is drama. Conflict, above all else, is interesting. Your first chapter is not a straight horizontal line. It’s a jagged driveway leading up a dark mountainside — and the shadows are full of danger.
8. Steak’s On The Table
The reader will only keep reading if you provide them with an 8 oz porterhouse steak and — *checks notes* — oh. Ohhh. Right! Stakes. Stakes. Sorry. Let’s try this again: the conflict you introduce? It has to matter. We need to know the stakes — as in, what’s at play, here? What are the costs? What can be gained, what can be lost? Love? Money? One’s soul? Will someone die? Can someone be saved? Is there pie? The first chapter doesn’t demand that you spell out the stakes of the entire book in big blinky letters, but we do need a hint, a whiff of the meaty goodness that makes the conflict matter. And if all that fails, maybe try that “give the reader a steak” idea. Or pie. Did someone say I can have pie? I’ll have Key Lime, thanks.
9. Wuzza Wooza?
In the first chapter it’s essential to establish the where and the when of the story, just so the reader isn’t flailing around through time like a wine-sodden Doctor Who. But this also doesn’t mean hitting the reader over the head with it. You don’t need to spell it out if it’s fairly obvious, and you also don’t need to build paragraph wall after paragraph wall giving endless details to support the when and the where.
10. Mood Lighting
First impressions matter. Impressions are in many ways indelible — you can erase that thing you just wrote in pencil or tear up the page with the inky scribbles, but the soft wood of the table beneath still holds the impressions of what was written, and so it is that the first chapter is where the reader gets his first and perhaps strongest taste of mood. Make a concerted effort to ask, “What is the mood I want the reader to feel throughout this book? What first taste hits their emotional palate?” (Two words: PSYCHIC UMAMI. That is also the codeword that will get you into my super-secret super-sexy food-and-porn clubhouse.) That doesn’t mean you need to wring a sponge over their head and drown them in mood — you create mood with a few brushstrokes of strong color, not a hammer dipped in a bucket of clown paint.
11. Theme As Thesis
An academic paper needs a thesis — an assertion that the paper will then attempt to prove (“DONUTS ARE SUPERIOR TO MUFFINS. BEHOLD MY CONFECTIONERY DATA”). A story is very much like that. Every story is an argument. And the theme is the crystallization of that argument. Sometimes it’s plainly stated other times it lurks as subtext for the reader to suss out, but just the same, the theme of your story — the argument the tale is making — is critical. And just as the thesis of a paper goes right up front, so too must your theme be present in the first chapter.
12. The Mini-Arc Is Not Where All The Mini-Animals Go
Every story has a dramatic arc, right? The rise and fall of the tale. An inciting incident leads to rising tension which escalates and grows new conflict and the story pivots and then it reaches the narrative ejaculation and soon after demands a nap and a cookie. The first chapter is perhaps best when thought of as a microcosm of the macrocosm — the chapter should have its own rise and fall, its own conflict (which may become the larger conflict of the narrative). That’s not to say the first chapter concludes anything, but rather that you shouldn’t think of it solely as a ramp up but rather as a thing with a more complicated shape.
13. In Which I Contradict Popular Advice About Opening With Action
Opening with an action scene or sequence is tricky, and yet, that’s the advice you’ll get — “Open with action!” The problem with action is, action only works as a narrative driver when we have context for that action. Specifically, context for the characters involved in said action. Too many authors begin with, “Holy crap! Someone’s driving fast! And bullets! And there’s a robot-dragon chasing them! LAVA ERUPTION. And nano-bees! Aren’t you tense yet? Aren’t your genitals crawling up inside your body waiting for the resolution of this super-exciting exxxtreme action scene?” Not so much, no. Because I have no reason yet to care. Without depth of character and without context, an action scene is ultimately shallow and that’s how they often feel when leading off the first chapter. Now, if you can get us in there and make us care before throwing us into balls-to-the-wall action, fuck yeah.
14. Better To Lead With Mystery
You ever turn the television on and find a show you’ve never seen before but you catch like, 30 seconds of it and suddenly you’re hunkering down and watching the thing like you’re a long-time viewer? It’s the question that hooks you. “Wait, is Gary the secret father of Juniper’s baby? What does the symbol of the winged armadillo mean? WHO SHOT BOBO’S PONY?” (By the way, Who Shot Bobo’s Pony? is the phrase that destroys the universe. Do not say it aloud.) It’s mystery that grabs you. It’s the big swoop of the question mark that hooks you around the throat and forces you to sit. While action needs context, mystery doesn’t — in fact, one of mystery’s strengths is that it demands the reader wait for context.
15. Eschew Exposition, Bypass Backstory
The first chapter is not the place to tell us everything. Don’t be like a child overturning his bucket of toys — then it’s just a colorful clamor, an overindulgence of information. Exposition kills drama. Backstory is boring. Give us a reason to care about that stuff before you start droning on and on about it.
16. A Fine Balance Between Confusion, Mystery, And Illumination
It’s a tightrope walk, that first chapter. You want the reader drawn in by mystery but not eaten by the grue of confusion, and so you illuminate a little bit as you go — a flashlight beam on the wall or along the ground, just enough to keep them walking forward and not impaling themselves on a stalagmite.
17. Flung Off The Cliff
TV shows generally follow a multi-act structure, with each act punctuated (and separated) by commercial breaks. The trick to television is that it seems like a story-delivery medium that carries advertisements but really it’s an advertising medium that carries story: the networks need you to stay through the commercial break, not just to come back to the story but to sit through the advertisements. And the way they do this is often by ending each “act” with a cliffhanger of sorts — a moment of mystery, an introduction of conflict, a twist of the tale. Your eyes bulge and you offer a Scoobylicious “RUH ROH” and then sit down and wait (or, like me, you just fast forward on your DVR). This trick works at the end of the first chapter. A cliffhanger (mystery, conflict, twist) will help set the hook in the reader’s cheek.
Keep it tight. Also, keep it short. Don’t go on and on and on. The first chapter is not a novel in and of itself.
19. Voice Like Bull
You never want your writing to feel limp and soggy like a leaf of lettuce that’s been sitting on the counter for days, but this is 1000% more true when it comes to the first chapter. Your voice in that chapter must be calm, confident, assertive — no wishy-washy language, no great big bloated passages, no slack-in-the-rope. Your voice must be fully present. All guns firing at once: the full brunt of your might used to sink the reader’s resistance to your writerly wiles. BADOOOOM. *splash*
20. On The Subject Of Prologues
The prevailing advice is, “Prologues can eat a sack of wombat cocks, and if you use one you will be ostracized and forced to eat dust and drink urine, you syphilitic charlatan.” Harsh, but there it is. Also, wrong — a prologue should never be an automatic, but hell, if you need one, you need one. Here’s how you know: if your prologue is better used as the first chapter, then it’s not a prologue. It’s a first chapter.
21. Fly Or Die, And Why
Since you’re a writer, you probably have bookshelves choked with novels. So, grab ten off the shelf. Read their opening chapters. Find out what works. Find out what sucks. What’s missing? What’s present?
22. Sometimes The First Chapter Is The Hardest To Write
Writing the first chapter can feel like you’re trying to artificially inseminate a stampeding mastodon with one hand duct taped to your leg. That’s okay. That’s normal. Do it and get through it.
23. More Time Under The Knife
What that ultimately means is, a first chapter may see more attention — writing, editing, rewriting, and rewriting, and then rewriting some more — than any other chapter (outside maybe the last). That’s okay. Take the time to get it right. It’s also okay if the “Chapter One” you end up with looks nothing like the “Chapter One” you started with many moons before.
24. An Emblem Of The Whole
You’ll notice a pattern in this list, and that pattern is: the first chapter serves as an emblem of the whole. It’s got to have a bit of everything. It needs to be representative of the story you’re telling — other chapters deeper in the fat layers and muscle tissue of the story may stray from this, but the first chapter can’t. It’s got to have all the key stuff: the main character, the motive, the conflict, the mood, the theme, the setting, the timeframe, mystery, movement, dialogue, pie. That’s why it’s so important — and so difficult — to get right. Because the first chapter, like the last chapter, must have it all.
25. For The Sake Of Sweet Saint Fuck, Don’t Be Boring
Above all else, don’t be boring. That’s the cardinal sin of storytelling. If you ignore most of the things on this list: fine. Don’t ignore this one. Be interesting. Engage the reader’s curiosity. The greatest crime a writer can commit is by telling a boring story with boring characters and boring circumstances: a trip to Dullsvile, a ticket to Staleopolis, an interminable journey to the heart of PLANET MONOTONOUS. Open big. Open strong. Open in a way that commands the reader’s interest. Fuck boring.
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