Nailing Your Novel’s First Chapter
Please welcome guest author Ellen Brock with a post on writing a captivating first chapter for your novel.
First chapters are important. Really important. If you’re submitting to agents and editors, your first chapter is not only their first impression of your work, but it’s often their only impression.
This is a lot of pressure. If you’re like most writers, this pressure makes you anxious, causing you to second guess yourself, your story, and your ability to write.
Suddenly you’re wondering if you could sneak a sword fight onto the second page or if just one tiny info dump would help explain why your character likes cherries more than apples. But hold your horses.
Though most writers worry and fret and edit and re-edit, novel openings really aren’t that hard to write. If you follow these guidelines, you’ll nail your first chapter every time:
Conflict is Required
Most writers think of the first chapter as nothing more than a setup. This makes writers go crazy trying to make backstory interesting and introspection exciting. This is a recipe for disaster.
While it’s true that first chapters are part of the setup, they also must have substance. This means that they must have a conflict. Period. No exceptions.
If you play your cards right, the conflict in the first chapter can perform double duty, offering both a conflict that sucks the reader into the story and insight into your character’s personality and motivations.
For example, if your protagonist is Suzy, who throughout the novel comes to terms with her father’s alcoholism, the conflict in the first chapter could center around Suzy trying to hide her father’s drinking from her fiancé.
Immediately, the reader is drawn in with a conflict (will Suzy succeed in hiding her father’s drinking?) while simultaneously learning about the protagonist (Suzy is ashamed of her father). Literary double duty.
The Protagonist Should be Proactive
Readers love characters they can root for, but it’s pretty hard to root for a character who isn’t doing anything. Opening with your protagonist gazing out a window or reflecting on the state of their life is a fatal flaw.
Your protagonist needs to be proactive from the very first chapter. This doesn’t mean you need to drop your character into a physical altercation or force them to leap off tall buildings. Remember that being proactive is not synonymous with action.
Being proactive simply means choosing to act in a situation that doesn’t require action, such as stopping a bully rather than walking to the other side of the street.
Don’t Bait and Switch
The bait-and-switch is when a writer promises one thing but delivers another. The most classic and cliché example is when a writer crafts an interesting and exciting opening scene, only to reveal that it was all a dream.
But the bait-and-switch isn’t limited to dreams. In fact, it isn’t even limited to exciting openings. Any time a writer creates a first chapter that doesn’t reflect the genre and tone of the rest of the novel, they’re guilty of a bait-and-switch.
Imagine if the conflict I described above, with Suzy and her father, was the opening chapter to a high fantasy novel. Suddenly that opening goes from intriguing to misleading.
Your first chapter is a promise of what’s to come. A bait-and-switch attracts the wrong readers and repels the right ones. It’s vital that what you promise is what you deliver.
Hold Off on Backstory
Have you ever had a friend tell you all about the problems of someone you don’t know? You probably got antsy, bored, maybe even agitated. After all, why would you care about some stranger’s problems?
As the writer, you probably love your characters, but the reader isn’t there yet.
Just like with real-life relationships, readers’ relationships with your characters must move through stages: strangers, acquaintances, friends, and then intimacy. The further along this relationship path you go before revealing backstory, the more the reader will care.
Writing about your character’s childhood in the first chapter is a bit like telling your deepest, darkest secrets on a first date. You’ve got a whole relationship to establish before you get to that. Right now, you’re just trying to get to a second date.
Raise a Question
Have you ever noticed how TV shows sometimes ask trivia questions before the commercial breaks? This is because people need answers, so much so that they’ll stick through a boring commercial break to get them.
As a novelist, questions raised in the first chapter get people to buy the book, ask for a partial, or turn to chapter two.
The question raised doesn’t have to be a huge one; it just needs to be intriguing. Why is the protagonist homeless? Why is he afraid to go home? Who is that guy stalking him in the streets? What is that woman trying to warn him about?
Without a question that begs to be answered, readers have no incentive to keep reading, but an intriguing question in the first chapter almost guarantees that readers will stick around for the answer.
First chapters are tough. They can reduce writers to mushy balls of frustration and stress, but stay calm. Take a breath. If you follow these guidelines, you’ll nail your novel’s first chapter every time.
About the Author: Ellen Brock is a freelance novel editor who works with self-publishing and traditionally-publishing authors as well as small presses. For more writing advice, including first-page critiques every Friday, check out her blog The Writeditor.