…To wipe out any chance of putting your book down before the story has taken over and become a mind-movie.
That takes some SKILL.
Luckily, skill is knowledge with practice. And rewriting. (Yeah, it’s unavoidable.)
So today I’m going to show you how to approach your first pages with minimal stress, and how to avoid common problems that haunt those first few pages.
Oh, and we’ll dissect some first lines. Yummy.
A (Nearly) Universal Process and A Look at First Chapter Needs
First off, let’s look at how you go from an idea to a first chapter.
Whether you plot or pants, most writers just have to start somewhere and go. Find out where the story is going to lead. Don’t let your desire for a great first chapter (whether idea or words) stop you from weaving your story.
Don’t let those first chapter fears rule you.
Once you know where things are headed, it’s easier to come back and fill in the “origin story.” No, don’t take that literally.
Imagine a roving consciousness looking at the world of your story, zooming in and out, searching for something to latch onto. That consciousness isn’t going to be interested in the absolute everyday goings-on. The disturbance is the moment it realizes something is about to happen.
That’s your starting point.
As James Scott Bell Says, “You need to stir up the waters immediately.”
Roz Morris suggests thinking of early events as symptoms of the main story problem. This is why I suggest working backward. Working this way creates a form of foreshadowing, and while it doesn’t have to give everything away, it makes it clear that something is happening. Changing.
Another reason to work backward is seeing what lack motivates the character. It’s easier to look at the effect and find the cause than the other way around. As Mooderino shows, it also allows you to tie everything together thematically and consequentially.
All of this allows you to get your pace moving immediately, helping you avoid infodumps.
Once you have an idea of where the story is going, you come back and stage your opening scenes. Not too hard a concept. You’ll want some tension, just enough backstory to keep the reader in tune but leaning in to know more, and something happening.
After you’ve written that first scene, then you come back again and look at the first line. Like we’ll be doing in a moment.
5 Common Issues in First Chapters
1) Failing to intrigue or raise curiosity.
There is an art to intriguing someone line after line, leading the reader deeper into the story, capturing them in a world of your making.
Intriguing someone is always a matter of raising their curiosity.
It’s an art of raising questions in the reader’s mind and answering enough of those questions to keep them on a subtle “I figured it out” high.
If you do so through SHOWING, it’s a natural ebb and flow behind the mind-movie.
Raising questions is also called opening a curiosity gap or a curiosity loop.
And if you’re worried about how to raise questions, how to hint, how to tease… Don’t worry. I’ll show you how others like Scott Lynch have handled it in their first lines.
2) Confusing your reader with a lack of essential, orienting information.
You keep confusion at bay by letting the reader (at least think they) know the basics of what’s going on, while hinting that there are things they don’t know. That line between curiosity and confusion is a boundary you should never cross.
Treat your reader with respect. Respect the intelligence behind those word-hungry eyes.
But don’t let respect turn into sloppiness, leading them into confusion. Don’t skimp on vital information.
But that leads us to…
Telling your reader too much about the character or the setting or the situation is one of the foremost causes of book abandonment.
It slows down the pace. It unfurls any tension you had going. It jars a reader out of the action.
And if you’ve managed to leave any hint of curiosity, the going-nowhere bland information overload frustrates the reader. A reader will put up with waiting in anticipation of an answer if something is happening. Actively.
Something happening two paragraphs ago before you stopped to explain (read: TELL) distant history DOESN’T COUNT.
Oh, and interspersing an infodump with small doses of a scene doesn’t make it any less an infodump. Need-to-know basis. Immediate need only. (You probably know this. I’m just making a point to mention it because I’ve seen it and it’s painful to read.)
4) Failing to fulfill a small bit of curiosity.
This is something I don’t see mentioned often, but giving your reader a small “victory” by clearing up a minor tease after a page or so shows them that you’re an author to trust.
It shows that you’ll lead them through the story step by step, never failing to give them vital, orienting information.
5) Failing to set up the story.
You might not need blocks of backstory or setting, but you do need to give your reader a feel for the time, place, character, and world. Use tiny drops, one here, one there.
Or be subtle. A lot can be conveyed in a single sentence.
Examining First Lines
There’s a lot of pressure on that first line, and you’re going to build it to carry that load. My best advice would be to try to make it fulfill as many of these guidelines as possible.
But they are only guidelines, so play outside them if need be.
“One should be able to return to the first sentence of a novel and find the resonances of the entire work.” – Gloria Naylor
Write a line that fits YOUR story, no other. Or at least avoid vague generalities that could start any story.
Let the genre show.
Spice it with your character’s voice.
Throw in a small discrepancy to spark curiosity. (I’ll show you.)
Orient events to the protagonist.
Toss some humor at them.
Make them ask why a character did something.
Avoid gimmicks, which really means make it tie in to the next sentence and the sentence after that.
And the heavyweight: Intrigue them.
Here We Go.
“At the height of the long wet summer of the Seventy-seventh Year of Sendovani, the Thiefmaker of Camorr paid a sudden and unannounced visit to the Eyeless Priest at the Temple of Perelandro, desperately hoping to sell him the Lamora boy.” — prologue of The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch
Let’s see what was accomplished here…
We know what genre this is, or we have a strong guess. We have multiple points of curiosity, mostly about characters and motivations. The disturbance has been introduced, because if being sold isn’t a disturbance, I don’t know what is.
And we know how the events are related to the protagonist.
The choices of bland voice and high narrative distance (superlative telling) are stylistic, partially because it’s a fantasy prologue. Those choices can backfire, but here Scott Lynch does enough with the sentence that it doesn’t matter. He uses those choices to quickly orient the reader to the story.
Plus he immediately moves in and starts showing instead of telling.
“Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery.” — prologue of The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
Immediately, you wonder why he’s staggering. There’s a discrepancy between who he is and where he is, and the act of staggering. If he were staggering down the street, you’d probably assume he’s drunk.
Mission accomplished. Curiosity awakened.
Other than that, the setting and tone have been pretty well established. Not too shabby.
“The two Blackguards approached the White’s door, the younger rhythmically cracking the knuckles of his right fist nervously.” — The Broken Eye by Brent Weeks
Despite this being the third in the series (which gains you some leniency), Brent Weeks sets up the genre nicely, and implies the influence of the White.
And for those that have read the earlier books, it opens a curiosity gap centering on why the Blackguard is acting nervous.
It also sets up the disturbance. Something has gone down, or is about to go down.
Let’s move on before I get caught up rereading the book.
“Dreams weren’t supposed to be able to kill you.” — Dreamlander by K.M. Weiland
This one is tricksy. K.M. takes an avoid-at-all-costs cliche and uses it in a way that works.
It works because she tells her reader that she’s starting with a dream (Gasp!) and the reader knows the story revolves around dreams.
She also uses a vague statement, which would usually preclude being distinctive of a certain story, and makes it her own.
On top of that, there’s subtle characterization of the narrator as a non-believer. Tricksy.
“He had many names.” — Blood Song by Anthony Ryan
And here we have a near failure.
It plainly states a popular trope in fantasy, and while we fantasy readers love that trope, stating it doesn’t open up much of a curiosity loop.
It doesn’t even give much characterization. There’s not enough to it.
And if we’re honest, it doesn’t even hint at genre that strongly because it would be a stronger first line in a different genre. “She had many names.” — a biography of Poppy Petal Emma Elizabeth Deveraux Donahue Montgomery, the actress. Mmhm.
You know how to do this. You’ve got it in the bag.
Now go do the work. 😉