Last week, in the 17th installation of my Writing Chronicles, I discussed the various ways to “Punish Your Protagonist“. I thought this week, I would make up for it by talking about how to Save the First Chapter.
Wherever you look, literary agents and editors impart a few golden rules: research the agent/editor before you submit your query, provide an economic-yet-comprehensive synopsis of your story in the cover letter, and make sure your manuscript is ready when you send in those first three chapters. In other words, try not to waste this rare opportunity to be read by a professional. Your book’s opening will decide if your story gets picked or tossed.
Getting the first chapter wrong is a piece of cake. We’re writers – an absentminded-yet-observant breed riddled with insecurities throughout our creative process and beyond. Even when we get the story right, we know it could have been better. It can always be better. But with a few simple precautions, that first chapter can be GOOD. What is better than good?
Here’s my two-cents’ worth to a workable first chapter:
Get your readers to buckle down from the first line. Nothing is more boring than an ordinary introduction. If only fewer novels began when the protagonist just got out of bed. Or my personal hated, the heroine looking into the mirror and reflecting on… her reflection. It’s swell when Alicia Silverstone is on the screen selecting her outfit but you can immediately SEE her – she is tres adorbs! You will need to put in a lot more effort to convince your reader that your character deserves the same attention. When writing a book, it is important to make sure you start by saying – or showing – something that will get your reader to sit up and take notice.
Decide in whose POV you will introduce the story. Most first time writers, myself once included, tend to think starting from inside the primary protagonist’s head is the only way to do it. After all, it is important to introduce your main character early – it’s his/her journey that the reader is venturing on. Pardon my French, but I think we have long established that non-missionary style can also be fun. I eventually learned that trying to see the same scene from the POVs of the different characters meant to be present in a particular chapter can produce unexpectedly good results. After I initially published I’ll Be True (my first *blush*) on this blog, I actually went back to change the POV from the heroine’s to the hero’s. What I now have is more tongue-in-cheek and action-oriented than the original pensive piece. I feel the reading is paced faster too.
Stick to that POV. The last thing you want to do is give your reader a headache before the good bits even start. A few months ago, I was reading a novel (I shall not name any names) where the story kept shifting between a giant werewolf and his love interest. Half the time, I couldn’t keep up with who bit who or which turned what and had to keep returning to the previous paragraph to figure out where exactly I lost my place. I read the book to the end, but by the time I finished, I read half the number of paragraphs in the book at least twice. Too much effort and not to mention all the time spent. I think I plodded through more out of my OCD than any conscientious obligation towards a fellow writer. Which is quite unfortunate because the plot and characters were quite interesting… when they didn’t bump into each other’s lines, of course.
Don’t let your POV character wander off into his/her past. Too much backstory in the first chapter is tantamount to wasting word counts. Now, normally I say to heck with word count. You will know when to snip. But there is an unwritten code about how long you can prattle on in your first chapter before your reader begins to get philosophical and wonder what is the meaning of life. Case in point, this particular rule I’m trying to explain. Start where the story starts. There will be chapters later where you can fill in bits of information about your character. Or not. Remember, your character’s backstory is mostly there for you to know him/her well; it’s not necessary to dump all that info onto your readers just because it took you days of research to figure him/her out. If you have ever made or seen a PowerPoint Presentation, remind yourself of how the slides were arranged. Was the conclusion revealed in the first slide? Was everything orally communicated written down also? No. Because your character is a journey and the actions and dialogues in your scenes your presentation skills. Focus on a few key details about the character, i.e. the ones relevant to the story, and share those with your readers in bite-size packs throughout the story. The journey can be so much more tantalizing that way.
Don’t fill up your first chapter with too many characters either. It’s your first chapter, not your neighborhood BBQ. Unless your story is about your neighborhood and does start with a BBQ – or a funeral – in which case, you might have to plan out your many brief introductions. But as the norm goes, try to limit your first chapter to a few relevant characters and make them interesting. Something that helps introduce your protagonist, whether from his/her own POV or another’s, and hints at the nature of the plot conflict. And you’re done! Andie’s dad’s cousin’s firstborn’s nephew-in-law is not relevant here.
Introduce a conflict, even if it’s only the tip of the iceberg. Really, like anything. It’s going to be there so no point in avoiding it. Just get the story going. Most stories ideally move through multiple conflicts. There will be the main plot conflict, then the individual conflicts the many active characters undergo, and finally the knickers the main characters get in a bunch for no reason – i.e. the confusions and insecurities we humans tend to enjoy suffering. You have an option to introduce any of them to help your readers get a sense of where your character is coming from. Don’t worry about whether your reader agrees with the problem; it only matters if it is important to your character and you are good to go.
Cut… and action! Show, don’t tell. Yes, I know you’ve heard/read this before. The reason it keeps popping up everywhere is because, without it, your story is bound to be a bust. I have never read a novel written entirely in the passive narrative [if anyone out there has, please share the title – I want to see what reading it feels like], but if they exist, I can understand why they are rare. Actions and dialogues help pace the story. They add charm to our characters even if the characters are evil. E.g. which makes you more curious? “Mrs Dursley was a nosy neighbor” or “Mrs Dursley … had nearly twice the usual amount of neck, which came in very useful as she spent so much of her time craning over over garden fences, spying on her neighbours.” [from the opening chapter of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone]
Image: Douglas Cootey, Flickr CC
When you let your characters talk, make what they have to say interesting. This might sound very harsh but I’m only saying this to be kind in the long run. Boring conversationalists have no business writing fictions. And I don’t mean you have to be able to go out and socialize with actual people – if you have interesting discussions with the people inside your head, it will also make do. [Must make concession for the more introvert variety of our breed, mustn’t we?] But the point is, you may be the type who comes back home from a party or a fight and lies in bed at night lamenting missed opportunity to deliver that witty comment or comeback that came to you too late. The good thing is that it came to you at last. Use it. Your novel is your second chance to get it right. And just as you wouldn’t want to be caught floundering in a tête–à–tête in real life, you shouldn’t hang your characters out to dry.
Figure out what formatting works for you. This is the serious editing process stuff. Once you have manic-written your first draft and moved onto the editing, all those shifts in chapters, the narratives, the inner dialogues, the actual dialogues, the paragraph introductions, etc. should be dealt with. You need to figure out the best rule of format for you and stick to it throughout the novel. You want to put the character’s inner voice in italic? make sure those stay in italic throughout the novel. You’re going to put multiple scenes or change POVs within a single chapter? make sure you break it with line spaces and start the first paragraph as you would start a new chapter. Remember, when reading your first chapter, your reader is also programming him/herself to expect certain font styles, punctuations, and other logistical paraphernalia to mean a particular situation in your novel.
Ok, so now that I have peddled my whacked wisdom on you, it’s time for a bit of confession. There have been many books over the years that took me multiple restarts over months of resigned endeavors before I got to the part where I was unquestionably hooked. Some of these books even went on to become my favorites. The list includes the aforementioned Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Great Expectation, and that timeless marvel beginning with the words:
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
That’s right. It took me three tries before I made it through the first two chapters of Pride and Prejudice and entered the ballroom where Darcy snubbed Elizabeth. This goes to show that, though they say first impressions last long, these impressions might also not be forever. After all, where would Darcy and Elizabeth be if they could not put aside their differences to look a bit closer?
Alas! If only agents and editors had as much time to make love to our manuscripts…
Finally, a word on the Author Toolbox Blog Hop:
#AuthorToolboxBlogHop is a monthly event, hosted by the gracious Raimey Gallant, featuring various resources and learnings for authors written by authors. It is open to writers at all stages of their careers and the rules of sign-up are available in the overhead link. Also, if you are just interested in connecting with actual authors and see what they have got to say, the sign-up page has a list of participants to direct you to their pages. Happy reading and writing, fellow authors!
#1 by Dianna Gunn on May 17, 2017 - 3:58 am
These are all great tips, although I would add a caveat: sometimes you have to start with a beginning you’re unsure of. Sometimes you have to go through two or three or four or forty two beginnings. But when you’re drafting, just write it once (or maybe twice, maybe) and move on – you have to write the rest of the book too!
#2 by lupa08 on May 17, 2017 - 9:41 pm
Good point, Dianna. When in the drafting process, it is best to carry on getting everything written down first. Too often the brilliant dialogue that takes place between my characters while I’m in the shower eludes me when I’m back in front of the screen.
#3 by M. C. Frye on May 17, 2017 - 4:24 am
I swear, I can’t read a single author blog article without learning something highly relevant! I have multi-scene chapters by the ton, and it never occurred to me to make the start of the first paragraph in each scene look like the first paragraph of a chapter.
Thanks! The advice about making strong characters and strong dialog haven’t gone amiss either!
#4 by lupa08 on May 17, 2017 - 10:10 pm
Thank you for dropping in! I’m glad I had anything of value to impart 😊 Of course, what I wrote here are just some of the elements I found to be effective while reading/writing.
I’m curious to know about the method(s) you use to switch scenes and POVs in your chapters and I’m sure some of the other visitors would be too. Will you please share? 🙂
#5 by lyndleloo on May 17, 2017 - 4:44 am
These are all such great tips! They’re all such simple things but they really make a difference when reading, I can’t imagine trying to slog through a book written all in passive voice 😮 Hopefully the prologue (I know, but I neeeeeed it) and first chapter of my book stick to these rules 😀
#6 by lupa08 on May 17, 2017 - 10:17 pm
Prologue can come it pretty handy. In fact, I think prologues tend to make even more impactful beginnings then the first chapter – that tension enriched moment of in the protagonist’s life that either jump starts everything or brings it to the moment of truth. 😃
#7 by miladyronel on May 17, 2017 - 5:03 pm
Great tips. Now to read the Philosopher’s Stone again…
#8 by lupa08 on May 17, 2017 - 10:21 pm
I know, right? 😝 While I was typing out the opening quote from P&P, I just got this itch to read it again. Sighs… Books – addictive and altering. 🙃
#9 by Louise@DragonspireUK on May 17, 2017 - 6:58 pm
Nice tips 🙂 My first draft is chock full of too much information, and I know that my first chapter especially needs editing. I agree that first chapters are really important, and I admit that I’ve given up on more than a few books if I couldn’t get along with the first few paragraphs!
#10 by lupa08 on May 17, 2017 - 10:29 pm
Thanks for reading! 😊 I think I’m more conscientious about what goes into my first few chapters then the rest of the book because I know how easily readers tend to move onto the next read. I mean, I’m obviously too OC to not-keep at it till I get to the finish but I can understand why most readers would move on – with ever-growing list of TBR, who can blame them? But then again, I have too often benefited from my persistence to chalk it up as a weakness 😃
#11 by M.L. Keller on May 17, 2017 - 7:04 pm
Every writer should have these bullet points posted on their wall. I’ve seen every one of these chapter 1 sins.
#12 by lupa08 on May 17, 2017 - 10:34 pm
Thank you! 😊 We are all on the same boat really. Just trying to figure out the mechanics of the oars. I have made some of these mistakes myself. The good thing is there are so many resources these days openly available to guide us.
#13 by Louise Foerster on May 17, 2017 - 7:53 pm
Love this — and am sheepishly heading back to my own first chapter to see if I’ve done as suggested!
#14 by lupa08 on May 17, 2017 - 10:39 pm
Haha. Thanks! 😊 When I first test-ran publishing a full novel on this blog, I kept thinking people are seeing all of my haphazard mistakes as I trudge along the chapters. Then I realized most readers are kind enough to accept it as a first draft. Didn’t stop me from sneaking in a few changes though 😛
#15 by Kristina Stanley on May 17, 2017 - 8:40 pm
These are all great points. Thanks for sharing.
#16 by lupa08 on May 17, 2017 - 10:39 pm
Thank you for reading! 😃
#17 by emaginette on May 17, 2017 - 9:02 pm
Very interesting. Thanks.
Anna from elements of emaginette
#18 by lupa08 on May 17, 2017 - 10:40 pm
Thank you for dropping by! 😃
#19 by Vanessa on May 17, 2017 - 9:03 pm
This is very valuable advice. I have read one too many books that give too much back story and it’s always in tell mode, not show mode. Now, if the back story is given organically, I am down with it.
#20 by lupa08 on May 17, 2017 - 10:44 pm
Thank you! 😊 The course I took shared an 80/20 rule about what to use from your character sketches – 80 you keep, 20 you share. The reasoning they provided was, writers tend to be very detail-oriented when creating their characters, most of it valuable to the author but necessarily to the reader.
#21 by awshannonauthor on May 17, 2017 - 10:21 pm
Great points. My current WIP has had four rewrites of the beginning, including adding an entirely new first chapter! It can be hard to craft a good beginning but oh so satisfying when you do.
#22 by lupa08 on May 17, 2017 - 10:46 pm
Thanks! 😊 It is interesting, isn’t it, how writers write until they’re satisfied yet can always find something to improve upon? I have always found that such a curious trait 🙃
#23 by raimeygallant on May 18, 2017 - 1:20 am
Hi Zaireen! This is a good refresher for us all, and a great intro for new authors. Hmmm…which version of my first chapter am I on currently? It’s so high, I can’t even guess anymore. A word of caution on the point you make about POV choice for first chapters. I saw feedback for someone else recently in which an editor cautioned against not using a main character POV in the first chapter. I like the idea, and I see it often, so I wasn’t sold on the advice when I saw it, but it’s good for us all to be aware of the various thoughts on the subject, I suppose. I think you switched between two main POV characters in your example anyway. 🙂
#24 by lupa08 on May 18, 2017 - 2:30 am
Thanks for the feedback, Raimey. Interesting advice from the editor about not using any other POV than that of the MC. I’m curious to know the reasons why though. Do share 🙂
Choosing the POV for me depends on a lot of factors, i.e. propelling the plot into action, understanding character motivation, to see how different characters gel with one another, etc. Sometimes, we just need someone other than the MC to get the affairs into working order.
I’m not quite sold on the editor’s advice either but maybe he/she has a point.
#25 by Hoda on May 18, 2017 - 3:52 am
Great post and great advice! I think the reason editors might discourage writing from a POV other than the MC’s for that first chapter is (at least in the submission process) that a lot of agents/editors request the first chapter with the query in submissions, and they want to know who the MC is (their story, why they should care). If they don’t get that opportunity, they might not be invested enough to request more pages. Of course, there are always exceptions, and established authors with a fan base can get away with certain things. Thanks for sharing this!
#26 by lupa08 on May 18, 2017 - 8:05 am
Thanks for reading!😊 and for explaining why may advise to only use MC’s POV in the first chapter. Sounds reasonable.
#27 by Caroliena Cabada on May 18, 2017 - 3:59 am
Great post, and I love that you’ve included examples of works that initially made a bad impression on you, but you’ve since changed your mind. That’s super helpful, and also super encouraging! For me, I feel like The Great Gatsby was a book like that, where now I read it almost religiously, at least once a year.
Great post and thank you for sharing!
#28 by lupa08 on May 18, 2017 - 8:07 am
Thank you! Sometimes it just pays to persevere.
And I can understand that about The Great Gatsby.
#29 by Mica Scotti Kole on May 18, 2017 - 4:53 am
Good gracious, SO MUCH WISDOM HERE. For the sake of not writing a 1000-word comment, I’ll hone in on the “add conflict, even if it’s the tip of the iceberg” thing. Starting the book where it starts, and keeping too much backstory or blase action out of the first chapter, is so very key… but some writers get hooked on trying to make the conflict happen. For example, how can the entire world be at stake in the first chapter of an epic fantasy? We need some build-up, right? Well, yes. But you can jump-start the book with a HINT to that conflict. Maybe the villain who wants to take over the world is starting with the protagonist’s village, for example. Maybe the character needs to be somewhere else – so your inciting incident can be them getting arrested or making a bad decision that forces them to the city where they need to be. The options are endless. Great points!
My post: http://wp.me/p7eeNm-1KB
#30 by lupa08 on May 18, 2017 - 8:16 am
Thanks! 😊 yes, conflicts come in all shapes and sizes and never exclusively. Something propels the character towards it, which is where the story may start. But at the same time, inner perspective of the MC may also hint at the conflict. Suppose the heroine has an inferiority complex and a general self-deprecating view of her undesirability. Depending on the genre, we can get a hint where she will hit the high waters.
#31 by Erika Beebe on May 18, 2017 - 7:37 am
I like how you mention the first sentence and also pointed dialogue. I think I learned the importance about the first sentence in writer’s workshop with writer’s digest and it HAS transformed my first chapter writing so much!
#32 by lupa08 on May 18, 2017 - 8:20 am
Thank you 😊 Not every book will start with an opening sentence that rocks readers for generations. But we can at least try to start the story aiming to come full circle.
#33 by lupa08 on May 18, 2017 - 6:14 pm
Thanks! The way I see it, not every good book is destined to have its opening line rock the boat for generations of readers. But that doesn’t mean we can’t do our best to write opening lines that come full circle by the end of the book.
#34 by Erika Beebe on May 18, 2017 - 7:22 pm
So true 🙂
#35 by JM Sullivan on May 18, 2017 - 11:24 pm
Great tips!! Thank you so much for sharing! The first chapter can be sooo tricky, it’s nice to have some backup 😉
#36 by lupa08 on May 19, 2017 - 12:09 pm
Welcome! And thank you for reading! It is perhaps the most critical these days with so many things vying for our time.