Part 2 - Does Your First Chapter Work?
In this second part we’ll continue our look at some of the elements that make a first chapter work. They are considered ‘key’ essentials to grab the reader, agent/publisher’s interest and lure them into reading your book and keep them reading.
Conflict is the driving force for fiction; it’s at the very heart of every story and so it must be present in your opening chapter, but since conflict comes in all manner of guises, the conflict in question is the character’s main conflict and not the bullets and explosions and all out action kind.
In a nutshell, what’s at the heart of the story? What’s the main problem, what must the character do to achieve this and who is standing in their way? That’s the type conflict the reader needs to know, rather than large, full scale conflict that might appear later in the story, because it allows the reader to become involved – they will recognise and understand such conflicts and empathise with your character.
And once they do, well, they’re already hooked.
Set the Tone
The tone...writers tend to ignore this one, because they’re not sure what the ‘tone’ actually is. The tone depends on whether your book is dark, romantic, gothic, humorous, noir action-packed etc. It’s the nature of the story. So if it’s set in an eerie village, set the tone. If it takes place on a star ship in the year 3000, then make sure you show the reader. If it’s set in a bleak wintry landscape in 1940, set the tone and create some atmosphere. It’s all geared to lure the reader.
By setting the tone at the beginning, you set the tone for the entire novel.
What’s at Risk?
In other words, how high are the stakes? What has to happen to for the main character to avoid dire consequences? What might the main character lose if he or she fails?
It’s wise to show the reader early on what is at stake, so that they can identify with the main character and create an immediate bond.
You don’t have to hit the reader over the head with it, but hint at what the risks are, mention them, let the reader in on what could happen if things don’t work out, and what it means to the main character. Do this and you establish immediacy and empathy, because readers do love to be emotionally attached to characters.
Make It Short
There’s a good reason why. Once you’ve grabbed the reader and you’ve interested them with all these juicy hooks, don’t overcook it – don’t let the chapter drag on and on. Keep it short, but tease the reader with enough information and hints that they’ll just have to read on.
The first chapter is the lure. The rest of the book will give them the story.
Create a Gateway to the Second Chapter
Grabbing the reader with chapter one is one thing, but keeping them is another. Your first chapter is the gateway to the next. And the next. And so on, right up until the last chapter.
Hint, tease and hook. First chapters don’t need backstory, pages of info dumps or lavish descriptions of the setting. It only requires relevant detail. That’s it.
These key essentials help establish the first chapter in your reader’s mind. It should tap into their consciousness and compel them to read on.
The more elements you give in the first chapter, the better your foundation for the rest of the story. There are no rules - but the first chapter is always the gateway to the rest of the book.
Next week: ‘He said/she said’ – How to make dialogue more compelling.