Nathan Bransford, Author


Sunday, October 10, 2010

The All-Important First Chapter

By: Valerie Kemp

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.

EXAMPLE:
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're 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.

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 with her family, and hanging out with Gale. 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. By then we might be expecting the book to be a family drama or something else completely unrelated to a reality show about teens fighting to the death. If Collins had started her book this way, 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


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 for me.

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 shape up your first chapter.
Here are a few tips that work for me (feel free to cherry pick - you don't need to do everything!):

* 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.
* Avoid going into detail about characters or events that are never mentioned again.
* Ask people to read the first chapter by itself. What do they think the book is about? What are they expecting to happen? 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.

Valerie Kemp is an award-winning independent filmmaker and YA writer. She blogs about her journey to publication at her blog I Should Be Writing about writing with her crit partners at Sisters in Scribe, and she writes short stories at the collaborative short fiction blog Tangled Fiction.






52 comments:

Brodi Ashton said...

Great post! I especially love the part about the first chapter being the last chapter in disguise.

Thanks!

Joanna St. James said...

Oh this makes me beyond giddy, I think am on the right track. Now I just have to make the rest of the MS as promising as my Chapter 1.
Great Post

erica and christy said...

THANK YOU! I have rewritten my first chapter more times than I can count. I've yet to have a critiquer say, "Yes! You've gotten it right!" I feel like this was written for me today. I SO needed this post! Off to put it to good use. Maybe today will be the day! christy

L.J. Boldyrev said...

Excellent post, Valerie!

Livia said...

Funny, I'm about 3 chapters away from finishing my first draft, and I was considering going back and rewriting my first chapter without looking at it after that. Now I'll definitely do it.

Misty Waters said...

Great post! I am so that writer with Chapter 1 being the info dump. I never thought of it as being "notes" to myself, though. What a great way to put it:)

Mira said...

This is excellent. I also loved how you organized it - persuasive argument, examples, instructions.


Great post - and really good points about the first chapter. Thanks.

Married to the Enemy said...

Thanks for the blog, I took a class in the SSA Writer's Conference that said the same thing. I took the advice and rewrote my chapter 1 before sending out the requested pages from the conference. Now, I'm terrified I put too much. Ah shucks, I'm darned if I do and darned if I don't.

Wolfe said...

I especially like this advice.

"Ask people to read the first chapter by itself. What do they think the book is about? What are they expecting to happen? Do they want to keep reading?"

Great post! :)

T. Anne said...

What a great post Valerie! Thank you. I need to go back and examine my first chapter.

Anonymous said...

Great job, Valerie!

~Aimee

Stephanie Perkins said...

This is a GREAT post, Valerie.

It's something I've been thinking about a lot this year, and I've come to realize it's always my first three chapters that need to be rewritten.

Brad Jaeger said...

Wonderful advice as always Nathan; you're my hero!

Melissa Gill said...

Amazing post Valerie. I have inadvertently thrown out my whole first chapter before, but never thought of doing it intentionally. This is fantastic advice.

Sorry Nathan, I don't miss you at all with great posts like this one, ha ha.

Valerie Kemp said...

Thanks for all the kind comments! I'm so glad this post was helpful!

Marilyn Peake said...

This is really great advice! Enjoyed this Blog post very much.

Danielle (@Danisidhe) said...

Thanks for a fascinating post! Great timing, too, as we are going to be talking beginnings on my writing Tweetchat, today (#Storycraft)

In Second year of Uni, I realized that if I wrote my (non-fiction, of course) essays straight through and then just swapped my original beginning and end I always got better marks. I think it was for the same reasons you outline here. A natural 'beginning' is to think about all the things we're going to 'prove and 'explain' each one a little but by the end of writing about it, we have it down and it comes out far more succinctly. I hadn't thought about how this same concept applies to fiction, thanks for the push toward insight.

Valerie Kemp said...

erica and christy: good luck! I hope today is the day too!

Stephanie Perkins: it's a painful realization but I think it's so much easier to see what you don't need at the beginning once you get to the end. If I'm honest with myself it's probably closer to the first 3 chapters for me too!

Danielle (@Danisidhe): That is SO interesting about non-fiction papers. It makes a lot of sense too. I wish I'd figured that out in school!

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

This is awesome! Thanks so much!!

Angela Dove said...

This is a really terrific post. Thanks so much!

The Writing Instinct said...

Valerie, thank you so much for this. It is very helpful.

When I was writing up my medical PhD thesis my uni prof advised that the introduction should be the last thing written. Now as I write my first novel (and as much as I realise that creative the writing has to be just that) there is something of a formula that has to exist to make it work. Your post has helped me to understand why the first chapter is important and must include the points you outline.

Thanks again,
Mervat.

Stina Lindenblatt said...

Great post, Valerie. I love the advice about getting people who don't know what the book is about to read the first chapter and give you feedback. :D

LaylaF said...

Great post!

Valerie, I'm wondering is there an ideal length for a first chapter? I've seen them anywhere from 7 to 50 pages long.

But after reading your post, I'm thinking maybe I should take my first three chapters (about 10 pages each) and combine them into one to achieve the "what's the book about" goal you're describing.

Or, maybe, just start over! LOL!

June G said...

This post is a true keeper to peruse and refer to. You've captured the essence of why a first chapter is so important. Thank you Valerie.

Anne R. Allen said...

Useful and well put.

Anne Marie said...

This is a fantastic post! Especially since I'm writing my first chapter -- again. ;)

Valerie Kemp said...

LaylaF: I don't think it's so much about length as it is about getting the job done. If your first ten pages have tension, pose a question that readers look forward to having answered, show your hook, or are otherwise engaging, that's all you need. That's "what the book's about" in the most basic sense. Like, the "vibe" rather than the tiny details. If that makes sense. I would say in general shorter is better because it gives a feeling of momentum. Once the reader moves on to chapter two they feel more invested, like they're getting into the book.

Shari said...

This is great! Incredibly helpful! Not to mention it makes me feel better about my first chapter!

Sheri Fredricks said...

I think you posted this blog just for me! Thank you!

Stephanie Garber said...

I know it's already been said but it's worth repeating - great post! I think everything you said was so true and right, and using Hunger Games as an example was perfect!
Thanks so much! I will never look at writing a first chapter the same way again!

bbtaylor said...

So many great pointers! Thanks and great post.

Maria Kenney said...

Totally insightful. I never considered that the first chapter should give insight into the main conflict of the book, but now that I think about it it almost seems obvious. I'm going to apply this info to my first chapter asap!

wendy said...

Thank you, Valerie. Many great ideas here. I've always wanted to think, though, what if one tried to make their first draft work? What if this first rush of inspiration was the right one, but was so different to the style that normally worked that it was difficult to make work. I mean this in the sense of a serendipitous mistake that results in discovery of a new literary style....not the actual story content. Or maybe that could work, too. Not sure.

I enjoyed reading your post as it was so well-organised and thought out. And it was also very timely as I started a new novel a few weeks ago. I take your point of not mis-leading the reader with a first chapter that seems to be heading in one direction but the rest of the novel covers different ground. This seems to be what has happened in my new work. The first three chapters focused on an interesting character based on someone I actually know. I've been adding to the story each time I've had contact. The story unfolds as it happens, kind of thing. But as this person hasn't been in touch for a few days, and I've been impatient to move forward, the story has evolved into philosophical and religious discussions. But I don't want to make anything up as this lady is so unique. . .nothing can compare to the original.

Thanks, again, for a great post, Valerie :)

Laura Martone said...

Thanks, Valerie! Very helpful info. Now, if only I could find the time to start that darn revision and apply some of this newfound knowledge... Any tips on how to clone myself - or would I just have even MORE work to preoccupy me?

Elie said...

A really useful post! Thanks. I visited your sites too, and really enjoyed the collaborative story. Scary. Want to know what happens next!

Sheila Cull said...

Wow. You're a great writer and from "The All-Important First Chapter," I learned a lot. Which reinforced how much I need to learn.

Thank you!

Sheila Cull

LaylaF said...

Thanks for answering my question Valerie, great advice. And, as everyone else has said, it's so succinct and well organized, easy to understand.

I now have a new perspective and a higher level of appreciation for the first chapter.

Simon Hay Soul Healer said...

Awesome post, Valerie! I think I nailed my first chapter after 20+ attempts. I needed this 5 years ago. Love your work, Simon.

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...

Ah, the first chapter... I have to be a bit of a masochist to get the first chapter right.

Liz Hollar said...

This is what I need right now! The comparison to Hunger Games is very helpful too. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Valerie,

Outstanding post! I went through this excerise over the weekend. I normally write the whole book out and then go back and layer.

Last week I decided to change the process and take each chapter and make sure it builds on the one before it. I write horror erotica.

So I went back and started all over on Chapter One. Everything you said rang true over the weekend. How much do I show? Get the tension in there without giving away too much?

I'm shooting it off to my beta reader and will use those questions you posted.

Thanks so much!

Rusty B. said...

I have to wonder how much sense of the Harry Potter series you get from chapter 1 of the first book. You get a lot of the mystery and feel of the book. But perhaps not a layout of the story like many chapter 1 guidelines would imply. It's one of the problems with being too formulaic. It strips a lot of the mystery of the novel and richness of the characters. Of course, if trying to start out with the sure thing rather than pushing the bounds, formulaic can be quite comforting.

D.G. Hudson said...

Your comments about notes making up a lot of the first chapter seem to be true for me. I had to rewrite the beginning of the novel I've just finished.

I like having some sort of map at the beginning, to keep to the story arc. I agree that the first chapter is very important, perhaps more so in commercial or genre fiction.

Enjoyed your post, Valerie.

lotusgirl said...

Very helpful info. I love both the authors you used in your examples. I'm working on rewriting my first chapter now so this is particularly helpful for me.

eeleenlee said...

THis is a very inspiring post- Chapter One as a promise to the reader is a great ideal to emulate

Rebecca said...

Thank you for this. I have heard it before, but never put in a way that makes so much sense to me. I'm going to look at my first chapter with fresh eyes tonight.

Dan said...

First chapters are important because they are the first impression agents and editors get of your work. These are busy people, they are culling a huge volume of submissions, and they're looking for an excuse to stop reading yours. From this fact, various myths about first chapters emerge.

For example, the idea that one must start with (or in the middle of) an action sequence is pervasive and wrong. It's a mutation of the adage that something must happen in those first pages (as opposed to back-story, world-building and other exposition).

Similarly, the idea that a first chapter can or should be markedly better-written or paced than the rest of the book is a canard. Every chapter should be your best work. Revising your first chapter should require much less time than making sure your middle section doesn't drag.

The hardest aspects of writing a novel are sustaining tension over an extended narrative, transitioning between plot-points, and providing necessary information and character development without bogging down in exposition. Compared to these challenges, first chapters are relatively easy.

The purpose of a first chapter is generally to introduce a primary character and a problem that will drive the plot. So, if you know who and what your book is about, the first chapter is halfway written.

Introducing protagonists is easier than introducing secondary characters, since you have much less time and space to spend developing the secondaries, and they still need to seem three-dimensional. And introducing an initial motivating problem is much simpler than handling complications and twists later on.

The reason agents feel comfortable rejecting you based on a first chapter is because a flawed first chapter indicates flawed writing throughout. But just because those first pages can knock you out, it doesn't mean they can get you in. If you stick a polished first chapter on a flawed manuscript, that's not going to get you an agent. Your narrative should be polished and engaging throughout.

Juice in LA said...

I can't tell you how timely this is- After attending a writer's conference last month all I took away from every single speaker and class session was the notion pounded into our heads, that not only the 1st chapter - but the first 3 pages-will make or break you.

Jan Markley said...

Great post. Richard Peck is amazing, I saw him speak at the Bologna SCBWI Symposium. The best advice I every got was start the story where there is a change in the main character's life.

Rick Fry said...

Thanks- good stuff. Are you going to write a post on how to write the all-important last chapter? That would be great.

MonarchTheLegend said...

this is great information man for any kinda of writing. definitely using it in my Manga

Megan Wille said...

This is definitely a post I needed to read! My first chapter is a wonderfully romantic wedding scene but it doesn't bring up the main conflict quick enough. My pace is too slow at the beginning, I think. I'm off to rewrite chapter 1 :) Thanks so much!

M.J. Wille, author

Related Posts with Thumbnails