A lot of importance is placed on the first lines of novels, and for a writer trying to get their work published, there is no shortage of pressure heaped onto the opening line.
There is a lot of pressure on a novelist to write a perfect first chapter. These words, these scenes, these ten or fifteen pages will be the first impression a prospective agent, editor, or reader will have of your novel, and you want to make them count.
So, the question begs — what makes a good first chapter? What should the beginning of my story accomplish?
The short answer: your first chapter needs to set the scene, introduce the main character, introduce the conflict, and lead to the trigger/inciting incident of your story.
What does all that entail? Let’s get into it.
I have been meaning to do the Writer’s Tag (plucked from PaperFury’s archive ages and ages ago) for a very long time, and now I am finally getting around to it! There just aren’t enough writing-related tags and surveys out there for us writing blogs, and this one has some great questions for getting to know each other. So, sharpen those pencils and crack open those blisteringly white empty Word documents and get to it!
For genres, I’m definitely a fantasy nut, but I have several more modern and less fantastical WIPs on my docket for 2018, including a murder mystery and a zombie virus! I definitely tend towards speculative, whether it be fantasy, horror, or science fiction, though.
For styles, I don’t think I’ve ever not written in Third Person POV (usually with a focal lens privy to the inner thoughts of one or another POV character). And it’s past tense all the way, baby! Usually my outlines are in the present tense, and I do like the immediacy that present tense provides, but I always find I skimp on the description and that my pacing is WAY too fast when I stay in present tense for very long.
As for my writing style … I tend to get lyrical and long-winded when I don’t know exactly what I’m trying to say, whereas when I have a firmer handle on the plot, my sentences tend to be shorter, more to-the-point, and sometimes even a little sparse on the details. Navigating between the two extremes when revising is a … special challenge.
Now, topics, that’s an interesting question! I answered a question on Twitter about recurring themes and images not long ago:
Forests, all the forests, every single kind of forest; an uncommon amount of fire; why have a sunny day when it could be cold and drizzling; and there’s always a mountain visible in the distance. always. unless they’re literally inside of one. https://t.co/7CIsAqp8UQ
— ❄️Christina ❄️ (@chuffwrites) November 29, 2017
No, but seriously, I have three — count them, THREE — WIPs in which the characters have either met, crashed into, or otherwise found themselves lost in a forest by the second or third chapter. What’s up with that??
Other topics that recur often in my writing: LGBT characters, self-deprecating humor (that often serves to lull the reader into a false sense of security before something AWFUL happens — is that mean?), fights against injustice, and characters that hate each other right until they become best friends for life.
In the last few weeks, there’s been a movement (or maybe a meme) for Millennials – at least those of us currently latched to our Twitter feeds, forced to watch the democratic institutions of our country implode 280 characters at a time – to binge watch Frasier on Netflix. It’s the new Thing, and I’ll admit I’ve been suckered in by the sudden influx of Frasier Discourse floating around. Though I’ve been lately falling asleep to an episode or so of Ken Burns The Roosevelt’s documentary, last night I watched two or three episodes of Frasier instead.
I had forgotten what a funny, smartly written show it was, or how overtly dramatic Frasier Crane was over every single mild upset life threw his way. I get it, twitter peeps. Frasier Crane is literally all of us. We just didn’t know it at the time.
Frasier, for those of us not well versed in their late 80’s, early 90’s sitcom lore, was a spin-off of Cheers – another binge-worthy show now available on Netflix. (Bring back Roseanne, Netflix, or I swear…). Cheers took place in a bar in Boston, where Frasier Crane and his (rather intense) wife Lilith were frequent secondary characters. To account for the existence of the spin-off, which relocated Frasier across the continental United States in his home town of Seattle, hosting a pop psychology radio show and begrudgingly allowing his father and a live-in care worker to live with him in his lavish, eclectic apartment, conveniently in the eye of the space needle, it was told to us in the Pilot that Frasier had divorced Lilith and moved back home for a new chapter of his life. Because of this unexpected turn in the path, he had to leave his son behind, his practice, and everything he thought he had built in Boston.
Something struck me towards the end of the Pilot episode. During his radio show, where he gives advice to call-in patients, Frasier takes a call from someone who says she has just broken up with her boyfriend of eight years and cannot stop crying. Is she mourning the relationship, she asks? Frasier explains that no, she isn’t. She is mourning the life she had thought she had planned for herself, but which has now been completely reshuffled.
I thought that was such a poignant and insightful observation – that sometimes the plans we make fall apart, and not only do we have to adjust to this new reality, but we have to give ourselves the time and the space to mourn the story we had written in our heads of The Way Things Are Going To Be, and which now seems dashed, foiled, scrubbed out.
Happy Monday, happy writers! This week, we’re going to discuss one of the most dreaded topics for any writer day-dreaming about publication: the query.
Is your stomach getting queasy just thinking about it? I know mine is…
What is a query? A query is the sales pitch in which you try to condense 300 pages of delicious novel-ly goodness into two or three paragraphs that are polished and perfect and pithy enough to convince a complete stranger to read your work. It’s the letter you write to your potential literary agent, or editor, or publisher, to sell your story to them.
Is there anything more stressful in the world? I mean, probably dangling over a tank of snapping and slobbering sharks on a lengthening and fraying rope … but even then, I’d have to say, the experiences aren’t dissimilar.
So, let’s go into it. How do you write a query that isn’t a total mess??
Opening a book for the first time, a reader wants to feel like they can trust an author to make good on their promise to tell a satisfying story. When writing a book, it’s easy for a writer to overthink your opening scene. You don’t want to inundate your reader with too much dense information, and you don’t want to open your book with a scene that does nothing to actually service the story. So, when you’re putting together your book’s opening, what should you be thinking about? What should go into that very first page?
It doesn’t matter so much if your first line is some intensely quotable sentence that will forever be immortalized on Best First Lines in Literature Listicles and bookish tote bags and inked on diehard bookworm’s forearms. What your first line needs to do — the only thing it needs to do — is make the reader want to read the second line.
The first line doesn’t have to be a show stopper. In fact, it needs to be a show starter. Your first line needs to part the curtains, switch on the lights, and pull the reader into the action on the stage. Try not to overthink this part, and try very hard not to overwrite it. Write exactly the sentences the scene needs in order to work, and worry about the first line of your novel only as an incidental consequence of starting your scene in the right place.
Whether your book is humorous, fantastical, a tense crime thriller, or a sizzlingly steamy romance, you want to tonally represent those elements right off the bat. Your first page shouldn’t open with a scorching sex scene if the rest of the novel is a sexless political satire. Let your voice shine through right away, and let readers know exactly what’s in store for them if they stick around.
Ideally you would introduce your main character, or maybe antagonist, on the very first page of your novel. At the very least, make sure any character you’re introducing is important for the story that follows. Don’t introduce someone only to kill them off before the end of the chapter unless their death spawns the events of the story. So, make sure it makes sense, from a story’s perspective, to open with whatever character you choose.
For instance, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone doesn’t open with Harry. The first page introduces Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, the strict and rigid Muggles whose lives are about to be upended when an orphaned infant wizard is placed on their doorstep. Vernon Dursley is an active player in the Harry Potter series, with a role that persists throughout the seven books. It’s not egregiously out of place that the novel begins with him, especially as we consider Vernon’s section of the chapter a look at the Wizarding world from a resistant Muggle’s perspective.
This is where understanding plot structure and really, really, really understanding the story you’re trying to tell becomes vitally important. Your first page should lend to your first scene, which should launch your novel like a bullet from a gun, sending the reader on a soaring trajectory that doesn’t let them go until the target’s red bull’s eye is struck. Don’t worry about explaining your character’s backstory, or providing dense chunks of worldbuilding. Think of your novel like a moment; decide on the opening scene that introduces your characters, your conflict, and your setting. A full scene, not the start of endless exposition, but a moment in your character’s life.
If you do that, if your first page starts your story, then everything else is icing.
Happy Writing. : )
Looking for more novel-writing advice? Try some of the following posts:
Hello, Happy Writers, long time, no see! I didn’t mean to go on such an extended hiatus — Hurricane Irma scattered our lives for several weeks, then October flew by, and now NaNoWriMo is chewing up my life! EEK. But! I have returned to issue you your weekly writerly goodness. 🙂
So, we’re deep in the thick of it for NaNoWriMo (Become my Buddy!) and, by now, we’re all probably feeling a tad overwhelmed by the task we have set for ourselves. You might be feeling you’ve bit off more than you can chew with NaNoWrimo — or, in fact, with any of the writerly goals you’ve set yourself this month.
What is the answer? How can we set goals for ourselves, shoot hit, but not get overwhelmed at the same time? I’m constantly gripped with guilt over the amount of writing I haven’t done — and very rarely do I remember to feel proud for the work I have put down. Before you beat yourself up for not reaching whatever goals you have set for yourself, consider — it might be your goals, not your writing, that are the problem.