by Ryan Lanz
You’ve got your idea. Your characters are fleshed out. The setting is crystallized in your mind.
You power up the laptop, and you place your fingers on the keys. Chapter one.
There’s a magic in that. You can practically feel the readers forming an orderly line to purchase your book, even before you finish the first paragraph. But what do you want to accomplish? What are the things to avoid in your first chapter? In this post, we’ll look at the nitty-gritty of a novel’s first chapter.
What are you looking to accomplish?
In a first chapter, you have several things that you want to accomplish and clue the reader on. This is not an exhaustive list, but let’s look at some common items.
- Identify a protagonist
- Establish something the protagonist wants
- Set the tone for the book
- Make a few promises
- Indicate what time/place in history
- Present an immediate conflict/issue
Let’s take a look at each.
Identify a Protagonist
This one is fairly straight forward. This often is the first person mentioned and spotlighted. I have been guilty of this in the past, but the consensus is that it’s good to identify this person’s name right away to help the reader click with that protagonist. Not naming the protagonist often feels vague to the reader, and it can lose their attention. It’s a rare reason to not name your protagonist right away, and if you choose to use one of those reasons, just be aware that you are risking the reader’s attention.
Establish something the protagonist wants
Every character should want something, even if it’s a trivial thing. It doesn’t have to be the final desire, or it could even change part way through. Writing in something the protagonist wants helps to drive the story, and it frankly makes the character realistic. Who do you know in life that doesn’t want something? Exactly. Everyone wants something, and so should your characters. Now, you may be thinking that it should be something grand like victory, vindication, revenge, world domination, etc. It doesn’t have to be so. Your protagonist’s initial desire could be the opposite of those things. For an example, look no further than Bilbo in The Hobbit. When you meet his younger self, his deepest desire at that point is to be left out of any adventures. Of course, if you write that sort of initial desire in for your character, you’ll have to change it fairly soon, otherwise it’ll be a dull story, but it’s perfectly fine for the onset.
Set the tone
The tone is the flavor of the book. For example, Pride and Prejudice has a playful, witty sense of style to it. The Game of Thrones has a gritty tone, letting you know that anyone is fair game to die. One way to quickly lose a reader’s interest is to completely change the tone part-way through. Of course, the tone of your story will ebb and flow, but it should stay within the ballpark of where you’ve started. Imagine if you sat down for a romantic comedy movie, then have it sour to depression until the end. You’d be wondering what else you could have spent your money on.
You don’t have to concentrate much on this, because you do it naturally already. Most writers do this without even realizing it. For example, if you mention magic in the beginning of your book, you’re making a promise that it’ll continue throughout the rest. If you don’t, then the reader will be disappointed. If you have two equally attractive people flirt with each other in the beginning, the expectation is that they’ll get together, or at the least that they’ll try to. Can you imagine if Rachel and Ross didn’t even try for each other after so much flirting in the first season of Friends? Another example might be if you mention a doomsday weapon toward the beginning of the book. The reader will expect to figure out what that’s all about. Essentially, any type of goal that you mention early on will need to be fulfilled or at least explained why it couldn’t have been fulfilled. We’ll talk more about foreshadowing in another blog post.
You don’t have to come out and announce that your story is set in France in 1571, but you do need to give the reader hints about where they’re at in the time/space continuum. For example, in a story that I once wrote, I mentioned the protagonist riding on a horse, smelling fish, mentioning boats, and seeing a blacksmith. That pretty much tells you all you initially need to know about time and place. You can figure out that the setting is a coastal location, probably before 1910-ish. I continue to drop further hints along the way, but the reader loves to “discover” these things for themselves, rather than you, the writer, coming out and telling them.
Present an immediate conflict/issue
From the onset, present an immediate problem (more on conflict here). Perhaps the protagonist is late, is interrupted, or is presented with a snag to his/her plans. The reader wants to see the protagonist handle something small before something large. If you make the first ten chapters a breeze, then smack the protagonist with a giant two hundred feet tall terrorizing the city, the reader will find it difficult to swallow but also won’t believe the protagonist is capable of handling it. During your next movie or book, keep an eye out for the small problems the writers give the protagonist at the beginning. You’ll come to find about three or four small bumps handled before the over-arching issue is presented.
Now that we’ve gone though what you want to accomplish, let’s look at some of the no-no’s of story-starting. Sadly, these things probably started out as interesting hundreds of years ago, and we writers have repeated them into duds.
- Waking up: the reader doesn’t want to read about the teeth-brushing the reader already did that morning. Been there, done that.
- Describing oneself in a mirror: no need to ask who is the fairest of them all. It’s a little pretentious. I can firmly say that I’ve never done this as a new writer. *looks up and to the left*
- Happy people in happy land: this was mentioned earlier, but not 100% of things can be sugar-sweet. If it is, make sure to have a strong flavor of that 2% (don’t worry about that math) not being/feeling right to the protagonist, like a thunder-in-paradise sort of thing.
- Not opening with a strong enough hook: you need to have a strong hook, or the reader will find shiny things to be distracted with. A hook can be a premise, concept, idea, or angle of your story that makes it unique and engaging.
- Too much back-story/info-dumping: for more on this, check out a previous post on info-dumping.
- Character confusion: the reader shouldn’t be confused on who they should be considering is the protagonist.
- Lackluster first lines: you don’t have to mention explosions, fast cards, and swimsuit models all in the first line, but make it something that makes the reader want to continue. Something to peak their curiosity.
- Changing Tenses: hopefully this isn’t common, but stick to one tense. If you really really know what you’re doing, then you can play with it, but if you don’t, then don’t. It’s very tricky and should only be done by a trained professional on a closed course.
- No curiosity: please don’t explain everything right away. Then there’s no reason for the reader to continue.
- Trying too hard: try to avoid using flowery language (otherwise called “purple prose”) and fancy words. If I have to break out the dictionary just to read your story, then in all likelihood I probably won’t. This is often indicative of a new writer who is trying too hard to sound like a seasoned writer. Sometimes the bleakest, shortest sentences have the most impact.
- Loss of focus: no matter what goal/conflict you introduce, have it going somewhere. Have a flow-feel to things so that the reader knows there’s a reason to continue.
- Prologues: this one probably shouldn’t be on the no-no list, but just use them with caution. I’ve read more than a few literary agent interviews who say they prefer a story without a prologue. Many would just rather see a well-written first chapter. Some genres are more forgiving than others. For example, it’s absolutely not uncommon for a fantasy novel to have a prologue. Instead of a no-no, let’s just call this a caution light.
Alright, feel free to uncross your arms now. That’s it. There are exceptions to every rule, and there areways to do each one of the above items decently. But just be aware that if you do so, you’re fighting against the current and will probably be guilty until proven innocent. You have to ask yourself whether you want to put in the effort to prove the relevance of the thing you just did or didn’t do. For example, they say to never kill off your protagonist in the beginning of the book. And what does George R. R. Martin do? (spoiler alert) That very thing! He pulled it off well and is wildly successful as an author, although I never fully forgave him for that (and, to be fair, it did cause a chunk of people to put down the book). So, it is possible to be successful by breaking a “rule,” but consider it from all sides.
There are a lot of things to keep in mind for a first chapter. It’s like a first impression. But the most important thing for a first chapter is for the reader to get to know you and your personal flavor. I try to remember to not get so lost in the rules and expectations as to diminish my “voice,” and the style that I want to offer my readers. There’s certainly a reason why your readers keep coming back for more.
Ryan Lanz is an avid blogger and author of The Idea Factory: 1,000 Story Ideas and Writing Prompts to Find Your Next Bestseller. You can also find him on Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr.