Rock Your First Chapter, No Excuses

Rock Your First Chapter, No ExcusesI know you. You want to captivate your reader right off the bat.

…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.

I’m talking about the starting point, the normal world, the disturbance. (Read both of those. You can thank me later.)

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.

So.

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…

3) Infodumping.

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

Enchant your reader from the first lineSo say you’re at the final phase of the little process I laid out. (At this point you should pat yourself on the back.)

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.

Don’t explain.

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

Better a strong first line…There’s a common misconception among newer writers, especially fantasy writers, that first lines must be snappy, or at least short.

Not so.

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.

Next!

“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.

No Excuses

You know how to do this. You’ve got it in the bag.

Now go do the work. 😉

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About MJ Bush

Developmental Editor.
Founder of Writingeekery with 10,000 monthly readers.
I help writers like you master the craft.

Comments

  1. catherine conn says:

    Very informative! Love it!

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  2. Brilliant! I like to think of writing advice as being on a spectrum: on one side we have the overly-technical, too specific to be helpful, this-is-the-only-way-of-doing-things advice, and on the other we have the ‘Speak from the heart! Let the creativity pour out of you like a river from the ocean!’ fluff which is equally, if not more so, unhelpful. What I love about your advice is that it strikes the perfect balance: it gives solid techniques and ideas but never condescends or scares away beginning writers with more detail on what NOT to do than what TO do. Truly, your blog is a gem and every post is well worth the wait.

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  3. What Ali said. Exactly!

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  4. Great post. I’ve always had trouble with the first opening lines. Always wondering, if the line is interesting enough, piques the reader’s curiosity, etc. Thanks, this post has been very helpful.

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  5. Shelley says:

    As always very informative. Thank you MJ.

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  6. I strongly agree with everything Ali said. Your post was very clear and very helpful. You covered exactly what I’ve been having trouble with. THANK YOU!

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  7. Desirée S. Fisch says:

    This was really helpful. I’m in the middle of writing a book right now and it’s hard to decide to start the story. When I rewrite it, I want a very strong first chapter, so your post helped a lot. I loved all the tips:). Thank you! It’s really hard to write a good book, so everything is really helpful!

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  8. This is maybe the best, most helpful thing I’ve ever read on story beginnings. I’m bookmarking! Thank you.

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    • Thanks for letting me know, S.C. I like being bookmarked. 😉
      More accurately, I like being worthy of being bookmarked. Thank you!

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  9. Ohhh I may have to revamp my entire next book. Which isn’t all bad because I don’t really “feel it”, as it is.

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  10. Thanks for the article, and for clearing up some questions I had. One question though, would it be a miss to start off with a something like “[insert something here], to the best of his shaky recollection, started like this:”

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    • Hi Jordyn! That’s a form of framing, and depending on what the first part is, how you start the scene that follows, and what the overall tone is, it could definitely work. Just make sure to close out the frame at the end of the story. :)

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  11. Here is the first line of the story I recently wrote
    Erin sits up and rubs her eyes, awake for the first time all night.
    Not exactly mysterious and teasing. Needs some work.
    What are my biggest problems here?
    I love the articles you write. They are the most helpful of any writing blog I have ever seen, and you should know I’ve seen lot of writing blogs.
    I’m quite interested.

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    • Honestly, Greta, I would start with a different scene. Waking up is a cliche that doesn’t give much room for the unexpected. And the likelihood that you’re going to be able to create resonance of the entire work in a first line from such a scene is pretty slim. But if sleeping is a metaphorical and real theme in your story, you could draw out the implication that Erin usually wakes during the night to create curiosity. Just make sure the conflict thread or disturbance is present from the start.

      To go to the specifics of the line, “for the first time all night” is vague. We don’t know what time she woke, or if not waking is unusual. What woke her? What actions would be less pedestrian and show her personality or unique situation? (Waking up isn’t unique, and it’s hard to make authentically distinctive, hence the advice to change the scene.)

      Don’t worry too much over the line until you’ve written the first draft. And second draft. And maybe third. You need to know the shape of the story and where the disturbance and conflict thread lie before you can write the hallowed first line. 😉

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  12. So here’s the first line from my WIP (which I’ve succeeded in ignoring for several months now while my brain decides where to go next):

    “You have got to be kidding me!” Shannon breathed an aggravated sigh and slammed her hands down on the steering wheel as her “alien green” Kia sputtered to a stop.

    What say you? The “breathed an aggravated sigh” doesn’t seem quite right to me, but not sure yet what to do with it. Thanks for your input. I’ve enjoyed (and learned from) the articles & posts you share.

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    • Cassie, let’s look a bit deeper than just the wording… There’s a disturbance, but what makes it a line that only THIS story could have? What are the stakes if she doesn’t make it wherever she was headed in time? Anyone would be annoyed at their car dying, so what extra bit of personality can you show here? Dialogue right off the bat is tricky and should really have an indication of unique voice instead of a generic exclamation. Never squander a chance to show a character’s personality. Beyond that, I’d skip the sigh completely and put all the emphasis on the slamming. It’s stronger, and it’s hard to imagine someone doing so silently. 😉

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      • Thanks, MJ. I see what you’re saying. The next few sentences give a little more insight into the character’s personality, but I’ll have to revisit the opener after I’ve got a better handle on the character’s story progression, I think. Still getting to know her, really. Thanks for the input :)

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  13. Great post! I’ve had a a story stuck in my mind for a few years now but I could never write a proper beginning for it :) I think reading this will help me a lot, thanks!

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  14. Thank you for this great post! I’m a bit late to the party, but I absolutely loved what you had to say. I have been writing, editing, and rewriting my first chapter for ages, and with your help I actually feel like I have a good opening nailed down. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

    “Many years from now, as you tell people the story of how you learned of me, I hope that you’ll tell them that I was not, as I have come to question even myself, merely the hallucinations of a man living in a padded room.”

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  15. MJ – I have completed my novel and have had friends read it – completely not in their genre but loved the book.

    However, I would love a writer to judge my first sentence.

    “Whenever, I feel lost, lonely or uninspired, I find myself standing here on a pier of West Michigan’s coast, eyeing Lake Michigan’s splendor.”

    In my novel, I pretty much broke every single rule, but I made it work.

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