You have the great idea, you’ve planned the chapter order, you’ve created four-dimensional characters and created the likely ups and downs that will happen in your story. You’ve created a setting. You’ve done the planning and the preparation. You’ve researched background information...
Now you need to translate all that to the page.
Writing the First Chapter
This is quite daunting; in so much as this is the beginning of a journey, not just for your characters, but also for you. It’s the start of a story that will have a beginning, middle and an end. It’s about taking that leap off the edge and jumping into the unknown.
It’s not always an easy prospect. Where do I start? How do I start? Should I start with description or action or dialogue?
The simple answer is to not think about it too much, don’t overanalyse things. Just get writing. Remember, this is your first draft of many, so the aesthetics of writing are not important at this stage, because the editing process will do the essential work. (Try not to edit too much until you’ve finished the novel).
For the first chapter, however, there are a few things to consider.
Firstly, you should start as near to the action as possible, or a defining moment in your character’s life that sets the character on his or her journey. Don’t make the mistake of writing pages full of dreary stuff leading up to the defining moment or action, or fill the reader with endless background information before you finally getting going by chapter five. This will kill any tension or trepidation and bore your reader. Jump straight in with the story.
The first few lines, the first paragraph should grab your reader’s attention and hook them in.
This is what you use to compel the reader to want to read your story and keep them reading until the closing paragraph. It’s the same principle used on the back of book covers: the blurb that enticed you to buy and read it.
The hook can be a paragraph, a sentence or just a few words that grabs your reader from the off and doesn’t let go, i.e. ‘He lifted the blade and sliced cleanly’ is a simple first paragraph hook. Or ‘He knew he was going to die, but he didn’t know when...’
These simple hooks make the reader want to learn more.
Whatever you do, don’t open your chapter with the ‘It was a dark and stormy night’ cliché. Be creative, be imaginative. Be anything but clichéd. You can start with a short description of action, or dialogue that grabs the attention – you decide. Dialogue should never be mundane.
Also, remember that you don’t have to tell the reader everything about the situation or the main character from the opening chapter. The best way to provide information is to drip-feed snippets. Tease the reader. This is one of the best ways to keep them interested.
The art of a good story is to tease the reader, and slowly feed information as the story unfolds.
Make sure you make your main character available to reader at the earliest opportunity. Again, it’s not necessary to launch into an entire life history or full-on description of what your character looks like – just entice the reader with snippets here and there throughout the chapters. Let the reader do some of the work – enable them to picture the character, the situation and the scene for themselves, because that’s part of the enjoyment of reading a good book.
Of course, the purpose of any story is to get from the beginning to the end, so your narrative and dialogue should always move the story forward.
Create immediacy with your reader. This means your characters and scenes must leap off the page, that this world is so believable the reader thinks they are right there with your characters, they’re feeling the emotion, getting involved with the action. How do you accomplish this? By thoroughly knowing the background and setting and the characters of the story and bringing the fictional world to life with narrative, description and dialogue.
Set the tone. The reader will know immediately if the story will be action packed (thriller, crime etc), filled with sadness (true-life style, romance, literary etc) or sprinkled with humour (funny, satirical etc). There’s nothing worse than picking up a book and not realising that half way through it’s a horror story and not a thriller.
The reader should also learn from the first chapter the likely conflicts that might crop up, especially if there is tension created between characters. Conflict is at the heart of any story, so let the reader get a taste of this as soon as possible. Editors and readers alike want to know what is at stake for your character; what is making your character undertake this journey and why? And ultimately, what will be the outcome?
Ending a chapter
As with the beginning of the chapter, the ending of a chapter is just as important, because you will still be employing that hook technique to reel the reader back in to continue reading the second chapter, third, fourth and so on. Again, you’re giving an invite for them to read on. Don’t be over the top, or necessarily dramatic, but a simple subtle hint at what might come is all you need to keep the reader interested.
For instance: ‘...as the sun set, she knew exactly what she had to do...’ Something like this sets up some intrigue for the reader. This is just an example, so it can be even more subtle than that, if you wish.
And before you know it, you’ll be into the second and third chapter...and onto the rest of the story journey.
The best way to remind yourself of these starting points is to draw up a simple checklist:
1. Open with a life-changing situation or action.
2. Introduce the main character.
3. Move the story forward.
4. Create immediacy
5. Set the tone
6. Set up the likely tensions and conflict to come
7. End with a hook to the next chapter.
Next week: Part 3 – The middle section of the novel.