Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Writing the First Chapter

First chapters are little buggers, aren't they?
The whole novel can be written, and well I might add, and yet that first chapter can still be illusive. Darn annoying. How to write a first chapter that compels the reader to continue reading? Where to start the story? How to start it?

Maybe, before starting, it's good to pause and think about the premise of the novel. A really good first sentence can show the entire premise right there in the beginning. Austen's first sentence might not be the exact Pride and Prejudice premise, but it sure tells you what the book is about.
IT is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

I remember a few years back I decided to figure out how authors write their first chapters. From now on, I decided, when I read a novel I will pay attention to how they did it. Problem was, if it was a good book, I forgot all about the paying attention. And if it wasn't a good book, I rarely got past the first few pages. So if there was (still is) a secret formula, some code these really good authors were using, I didn't have it because I got too involved. I was too deep into the story.

Eureka! Can this be the secret? But of course - get the readers hooked from the first few sentences. How, though, I scream. How??? I mean, think about it - such a grave task the first chapter has. The ultimate goal of a first chapter is obviously to get the reader to turn the pages, but what else is it supposed to do - should it introduce the protagonist? Most likely. Should it introduce the conflict in some way? Probably. Establish time and place to a certain extent? Possibly.

So the first chapter has to do all that and keep the reader turning those page. The readers are investing their time and the first chapter must convince the readers it's worth their while.

How to draw the readers in? What does 'introducing' mean? Hi everybody, meet Andrea here. She's tall, pretty and smart. Is that it? Of course not. Where's the intrigue? Well, Andrea might be tall, pretty and smart, but she's not just that. When Andrea walks in a mall, she always walks along the stores on her right side. Why? Aha! Here's the hook. The reader is thinking, interacting. That's good. (Maybe my example sucks but I think the point is clear).

What about plot? Same thing. Must be interesting first of all. For some reason some writers start from a passive point and only bring in the action later. Even JK does it with each HP book. Harry always starts his summer at his uncle's house bored out of his mind, and I can't wait till we (me and Harry) get to the Weasley's house or to Hogwarts. So if the action comes in quickly, that's fine, but if the protagonist is bored or in bed, so would the reader be - bored or fallen asleep.

One way of starting is by putting the protagonist in a scene where conflict occurs. The conflict doesn't have to be action, but can be something in the protagonist head, some emotional problem, moral dilemma, or any other thought provoking on the part of the reader. What's the dilemma? What is the emotional crisis?

So we said interesting. We also said to get the readers involved. Getting the readers to ask the questions and wanting to know the answers is getting them involved. Just think of any great novel and you'll see that already with the first sentence the reader can feel intrigued and has questions, about the action, about the characters, about the conflict etc.

And yet, the author never gives the reader too much information. Some curiosity must remain. The reader needs to want to know what is going to happen next. (Sometimes the reader might want to know what had happened before.)

Big No-No's
Reliability - readers must feel they can trust the author. They will stop reading immediately if things don't make sense to them (and not in the 'there are no aliens' way, but in the 'it's inconsistent' way).
Investment - again. This time I'm talking about emotional investment. The readers must feel that their emotional investment will pay off. They must care about the characters, not like, but care.

Biggest No-No
To get bogged down with the first chapter. Especially not at the beginning. Easier said than done sometimes, but forget about the first chapter and simply write your novel and let the creativity flow. You can always come back to the first chapter later, or maybe just start with the second chapter - he he.

And finally a link Unfolding a Story from a First Sentence

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Lee Carlon said...

Hi Melly, whenever I finish a first draft, the first chapter is almost always the first thing that gets changed, usually be being moved to chapter two as a new chapter one has presented itself.

Melly said...

I know...
It's just so hard to start at the beginning. Much easier to end there though :)

Lee Carlon said...

Incredibly, that makes perfect sense.

Melly said...


Runners_high said...

Good blog you've got there.

Melly said...

Thanks runners high.

For a while, even though I had a theme for my blog, I was still treading water. But slowly the blog is getting a personality and comments like yours only make me feel better about the direction the blog is taking.