Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The All-Important First Chapter

Last week I entered Miss Snark's First Victim's Secret Agent contest (see my entry here) and got some GREAT feedback on my work. Since the contest deals with the first 250 words, all of which I rewrote for the contest, I thought this was a great time to talk about first chapters.

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 are 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. (Seriously, if you have not read this book yet, go get it NOW.)

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 dealing with her mother and sister. 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. If she had though, 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

I read this quote for the first time not long ago and was struck by how true it was. 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.

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 fix your first chapter.
I'm no expert, but here are a few tips that work for me:

  • 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.
  • Ask people to read the first chapter by itself. What do they think the book is about? 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.

What about you? What are some of your first chapter tips? What are some of your favorite first chapters?


  1. This is so true and I love the quote. I rewrote the entire beginning of my first chapter after finishing the ms and I'm so much happier with the new version.

    The Hunger Games is a great example -- and it begins with the MC waking up which is at the top of the list of Things To Avoid. Just goes to show you that it comes down to execution -- I can't wait for the 3rd book to come out!

  2. The hunger games is a great example! And I just read it, so it's fresh in my mind.

    I'm so anxious to see what you both have to say about my revised first chapter. I'm a little worried you won't get any sense of the supernatural element that comes in to play later in the story.

    My original first chapter was a lot like you described--notes to myself. I ended up cutting at least seven pages just from the opening!

    Love this post, Valerie!

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  4. LOVE the Richard Peck quote. Beginnings are torture. My family can attest that I'm a big fat grump until I finish the first 50 pages!


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