Last summer I attended the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. I took a workshop on first chapters called "Frontloading: The Crucial First Chapter" and the thing I learned that stuck with me the most was that the first chapter is a promise to the reader. It tells them what kind of story they're going to be getting, and what to expect. This is true, even if you don't intend for your first chapter to do that, because it's the way we read. Breaking that promise can frustrate, and disappoint your reader.
That doesn't mean you should give everything away. You don't have to reveal your plot twists, but if your book is a sci-fi thriller, don't let your first chapter read like chick-lit.
By the end of the first chapter, the reader should have some sense of what the main conflict of the book is going to be. They don't need to know all the details, but they should be able to tell the genre, have a good sense of who (what type of person) the main character is, and how their world is changing. Knowing these things sets up anticipation in the reader, it makes them want to read on and see how the events unfold. Not knowing these things makes the reader wonder what the heck this book is about, and if they should even bother to read on and see what happens.
Here's an example of a book with a great first chapter:
The Hunger Games - In the first chapter of The Hunger Games we get to see Katniss' everyday world. We learn about the Hunger Games and the Reaping and the high chance that Gale and Katniss will be picked. We see that Katniss is responsible and protective of her sister, Prim, whose name is in the Reaping for the first time. And in the very last sentence of the chapter there's a shock as Prim's name is called.
This is a GREAT end of a first chapter. As a reader we're left with a sense of dread. We know what Katniss must do, and we know that we're in for an exciting ride because we're going to experience the Hunger Games with Katniss. We're also introduced to the mechanics of Collin's writing - cliffhanger chapters. Both with story and with structure, she has shown us what to expect, and how to read her book. And she delivers.
Now imagine if The Hunger Games started differently. What if the first chapter was an ordinary day at school for Katniss, followed by time at home with her family, and hanging out with Gale. Suzanne Collins could've started there and gone into greater detail about Katniss' troubled relationship with her mom, given us more history on the District, how life in The Seam works, etc. She could've had the Reaping happen in chapter 3. By then we might be expecting the book to be a family drama or something else completely unrelated to a reality show about teens fighting to the death. If Collins had started her book this way, she probably would've lost a lot of readers. I know I would've been flipping back to the cover over and over again, wondering when these supposedly awesome Hunger Games were going to start. I probably would've put the book down before the action started and picked up something else.
The first chapter is the last chapter in disguise.
- Richard Peck
Richard Peck says that when he finishes his first draft, he always throws out the first chapter without reading it and writes a new one.
I thought about why it is that the first chapter is usually the one that needs the most work and I think I figured out at least part of why this is true for me.
Usually, at the beginning of a story I am bursting with ideas and information. I know my main character is this, and her love interest is that, and then this, this, and this are going to happen, all because of THAT! And so I'm excited to get to that stuff, and I start laying down all the pieces and facts necessary for the later events to occur.
I've come to realize the first chapter, (and the whole first draft really) but especially in the first draft, the first chapter is really just notes to myself. It's me getting that info out there so that I can remember to make it happen when the time comes.
After the first chapter, my writing tends to smooth out. I let things unfold the way they should, revealing information only when it's necessary. Most of the time this results in duplicate information. Things appear once, in the first chapter where they're not really needed, and again later on where they belong.
How to shape up your first chapter.
Here are a few tips that work for me (feel free to cherry pick - you don't need to do everything!):
* Rewrite it from scratch.
* Look for and remove exposition that doesn't come into play until later in the story.
* Start at the moment closest to the beginning of the main conflict of your story as possible.
* Make sure your chapter has action, and not just a character thinking about or looking at stuff.
* Make sure the main conflict of your book is set up.
* Avoid going into detail about characters or events that are never mentioned again.
* Ask people to read the first chapter by itself. What do they think the book is about? What are they expecting to happen? Do they want to keep reading?
You know you're on the right track if people have a sense of where your book is going to go and they want to go along with it.
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