Friday, June 24, 2011

First Chapter Woes

Today I’m going to talk about something that eludes many writers. Something that makes us scratch our collective heads and sigh,“Will I ever get this right?”

The elusive first chapter.

My CP and I have gone many rounds trying to perfect the first chapter. But what’s the problem? Why are we having such a hard time? Just write the story. Tell it. It’s that simple. Right? But it’s not. Not at all.

What is a first chapter supposed to do?

  1. It hooks the reader
  2. It sets the story up.
  3. It tells the reader where the story is taking place
  4. Who the main character is
  5. It sets in motion our attitude toward the MC – do we like them –

What usually holds the first chapter back?

No hook. The readers need something to make them turn past the first page. I’ve read many agent blogs and most say it takes them until the second or third page of a story to tell if they’ll request to read more. But some don’t even make it off the first.

What do they want to see? Maybe this isn’t the best question. What don’t they want? Yeah. That’s a better question. Back-story – they don’t want to hear about what happened before the story actually takes place. They want what’s happening now. Don’t info-dump the reader in the first chapter. A good writer weaves back-story into the plot in small doses.

They don’t want action for no apparent reason. What do I mean: action with no dialogue, no insight into the MC, no introduction to the setting to ground the reader? Action is okay to start the story if it moves the story in a forward motion. It provides vital info about the MC so that the reader can empathize with them, and it’s clear who’s doing what and why.

Another culprit in the first chapter woes: The setting is not clear and neither is the genre of the book/piece. The readers have no way to ground themselves if they don’t know where the story takes place. Or what kind of story it is. This is a simple fix. Tell the reader where the story takes place. In addition, tell them what kind of story it will be. Caution: it should be revealed organically to the reader the setting and genre of the story.

I thought I’d share part of a short story here as an example of each element of the opening chapter I’m talking about.

Hook:  “Um…uh, hey…Rachel.” This is the very first line of the story. It does a number of things.  It tells us someone is reluctant to speak to someone else. Why? This should propel the reader forward. They want to know why this person is nervous about speaking to Rachel. And who is Rachel anyway?

Setting:  Someone says as I sit perched beneath a massive oak and wait for my sister, Melissa. I look up to see Sharon Potts standing in front of me. She blocks my view of the one-story school. I lower my head and take a deep breath. These are the next sentences in the same story. They establish a) that the story is in first POV b) the main character is Rachel because we’re in her head c) the story is taking place outside of a school d) which might mean that the story is YA (might). This also shows a little about the character, Rachel. She’s waiting for her sister to exit the school and is concerned that Sharon is blocking her view of it. Does that read as anxious? Her reaction in the last sentence says she doesn’t really want to be bothered. Great. There’s conflict immediately.

Setting the story up (more) and character development: I turn my attention back to her. Her throat goes up then down as she swallows hard. “Hi, Sharon,” I say. My stomach does a flip. Go away. I don’t feel like talking. I cup my hands over my brow to shield them from the glaring sun and Sharon’s searching espresso colored eyes. I glance around her to ensure Melissa hadn’t come out of the building with the small cluster of kids trickling down the front steps. Okay we have conflict – for sure. We’re in her head and she does not want to be bothered with Sharon. She is the one who actually seems nervous now. Why? We also have more information on the setting.

And more set-up and conflict: “Um, Rachel, I’m really sorry to hear about your mom. She was great.” She paused. The side of her mouth turns up into a small grin, well, half smile. I wanted to smack her. “You know…um…you can always come and talk to me…if you need someone to talk to…I mean. How are you holding up?” Her glance falls sideways, as if she does not want to hear the answer.

I’m not confident I’ll see Melissa exit despite my attempt to peer around Sharon. So I stand.  I wipe the back of my jeans to remove the dirt. And I reach behind and pull the band on my long ponytail to loosen it. My head aches. I inhale a deep breathe and exhale it slowly. Sharon is two inches shorter than I am so I don’t initially notice her standing there still. She is looking at me with wide eyes. Is she waiting for a reply to her question? I groan internally. Not again.  

All this sets the story up. It’s a short story so you have a limited amount of time to grab your audience. But the same goes for longer pieces. I set up conflict early and tried to incorporate tidbits about the MC’s character right away. I also included info about the setting: a school, the glaring sun (midday), a massive oak tree. There is also info about how Rachel looks,  a) long hair b) in a ponytail c) she sounds like she might be tall c) she has on jeans

The part of the story posted here gives the reader a lot to think about already and it’s only the first few paragraphs. I haven’t given away the entire story (good pacing) but I have given the readers enough to want to keep reading.

All the elements above should be in your first chapter to ensure your audience wants to keep reading your piece. Do you have any tips for starting the first chapter? Leave it in the comments.

Have a great day. Read a book and laugh.


  1. I love this post because I am having such an issue with my first chapter. I change it, I rewrite it, I even consider making a separate prologue. I know, though (in some logical part of my brain), that the first chapter will likely change again even after the whole thing is drafted. Heck, if it gets picked up for publication, an editor might change that first chapter completely. So, I'm telling myself to leave the first chapter alone for now. It has to be just good enough so I can move on. I'll let you know how that goes. =)


    -Miss GOP

  2. Your sample had some good elements in it. I agree with the first commenter. I never sweat that first chapter until I finish the draft. When I've written the whole story, I have a much better idea of what needs to go there. But yeah, no back story and don't start in a dream.

  3. Miss Good on Paper, I understand. I still have the issues too. Do share your progress also. I love to hear how someone suceeded with their MS.

    Catherine, I totally agree - don't worry about the first chapter until after you finish the first draft. I try not to make any corrections at all until I finish the entire first draft. Good tip. Oh, and great tip about not starting in a dream - agents hate that. Thanks!

  4. I love first chapters. That may make me weird, but I think it's so much fun to set up the story and try to get someone's attention right from the start. It's a challenge and a fun one at that.

  5. Great workshopy blog post!
    Thanks .. some great ideas here.

  6. Thanks, Michelle and Kelly. The first chapter does give us problems. I like to write them too, Kelly. Experiment with how I can start with a bang but keep the right elements all in perspective.

  7. Dawn, great post. I completely agree and I have struggled with the first chapter issues as well. I love picking up books in the bookstore and reading the first line. Even better the classics can offer a timeless visit to good openings.

  8. Thanks, Adrian. I love to do the same thing. I also go to Amazon and do this too.


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