Writing the First Chapter

 In Blog

These days, most readers aren’t looking for slow, thought-provoking fiction. They want to jump into the action, and your opening pages will set the pace for your entire work. To grab a reader or agent, you need to set the hook within the first two or three sentences.

Easy to say, but how can you do that? First off, don’t start with a flashback or backstory (or prologue). Sprinkle that information throughout the novel. And don’t write about the weather unless it’s taking action on someone. It may be a dark and stormy night, but so what? Finally, no staring pensively into mirrors or peering forlornly out windows!

So how do you start? One way is to look at your first chapter and delete everything before the action begins. Drop the reader right in the middle of the scene. Worried that might be confusing? Never underestimate your readers. They don’t want everything spelled out. You want them to read those first sentences and think, “What’s going on? Who is she and why is she doing that?” Don’t give the reader a choice about whether to continue with the story. Write so they have to keep going.

For example, instead of trying to set the mood by describing the hostile weather, show the effects of that thunderstorm. “The lightning’s power of creation and joy of destruction melted into the charred figure lumbering ever closer to the manor. Dead. Alive. Somewhere in between.”

I may use that opening if I ever decide to do a romance novel. 🙂 But no matter what genre you write, the same rule applies. Get to the action!

Here’s the opening sentence of my novel, Grinder:

  • “The grinding machine’s twenty-four steel hammers each swung more than five hundred times per minute, converting the hay bale and Catherine Mae Blackston into cattle feed.”

I could’ve started with my antagonist killing the woman, but by jumping into the middle of the scene, questions pop up right away. What’s happening? Who is this woman? Who killed her, and why?

Putting the right questions in the reader’s mind is exactly what you want to accomplish. The only way to get the answers is to keep reading. A story must continually generate curiosity if it’s to be successful. That’s why it’s so important to end all chapters, not just the first one, with cliffhangers.

Finally, carry the tone of your novel’s opening throughout the work. You’ve set an expectation in the reader’s mind. If they continue reading, it’s because they like what they’ve seen so far. And if they don’t, then changing the tone later isn’t going to help and worse, it’s going to alienate the reader who bought into your opening chapter.

[tweetthis]Never underestimate your readers![/tweetthis]

[tweetthis]Essential tips for writing your novel’s first chapter.[/tweetthis]

By the end of the first chapter, your reader should know:
  • The genre. Suspense? Historical romance? Mystery?
  • The setting. Where does the story take place? What era?
  • The main character(s). Not all of them necessarily, but at least your protagonist or antagonist.
  • The conflict (or at least a sense of it). What do your main characters want, and what’s keeping them from getting it?
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