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.
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?
The First Page
Have a first line that resonates — and pulls you right in.
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.
Set the tone.
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.
Introduce plot-affecting characters.
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.
Above everything else, your first page needs to start your story.
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:
What are some of your favorite opening lines and first pages of novels? Are you confident in your WIP’s first page, or are you struggling with it? Leave a comment below, let’s chat!
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.
We all have those books that make us write better. The books we turn to when our creativity tank is running on fumes. The books that make us want to write. The books that made us feel like writing was possible.
I wanted to share five writing lessons I’ve learned from one of my favorite book series, Harry Potter. JKR’s fantasy series is lusciously liberal with description and teeming over with amazing characters; it’s no wonder that this is a book series that readers return to time and time again. Can writers learn something from JKR’s crafting of the Wizarding World? What are some of the elements of Harry Potter that make it so inherently, and insatiably, readable?
In case you’re wondering, yes, I’m still nostril-deep in revisions for my WIP. As I’m revising, I find myself taking the story on chapter by chapter, and really examining the ways in which I can make each individual chapter satisfying, exciting, and, most importantly, contribute in a vital way to the plot overall.
So, what does make for a good chapter? I can think of five key attributes successful, satisfying chapters have in common. If you’re writing or revising your novel, here are some things to look for:
Whenever I’m developing a plot for a story, I feel a little like a seamstress trying to make a whole quilt out of a few scattered, seemingly mismatched patches. I have a sense of an ending, a few random visuals or snippets of dialogue, and, if I’m lucky, the mental images of three or four characters I want to go on this journey with. The act of writing then becomes finding more patches and an overall working pattern to connect all this disparate pieces into something warm and snuggable, that you want to wrap up with in front of a cozy fire.
What I’ve found is that, when you’re still in the process of brainstorming ideas of your story, it can help to take a good long look at your characters. Ask yourself, what are their strengths? What are their weaknesses? And how can I use those strengths and weaknesses to create the successes and triumphs of that character’s story arc?
Hello again, all you happy writers (and editors) out there! As I’m still knee-deep in edits (or neck-deep, or–when exactly am I certifiably drowning?), I’d like to address a problem I’ve been working on with today’s chapter revisions — the dreaded (and constant) use of the phrase “looked at”.
You’re probably familiar with the problem. You picture your scene like a movie playing out in your head, and find yourself inserting “stage directions” into your writing. As each new development occurs, characters swivel around to look at the person speaking, to stare indignantly at their rival, to gaze up at the source of a sound, to glance at a plot point. It all sounded good in your head as you were writing it down, but now that you’re reading the scene over again, the words looked and gazed, glanced and stared appear in almost every. single. sentence. What do you do? How do you keep your characters from constantly looking and staring and glancing and turning towards each other?
Hello, happy writers! How’s your summer treating you? Crushing those word counts? I’m still waist-deep in editing my WIP, and while it’s immensely difficult, I am seeing incremental progress — it’ll all come together eventually, right??? Editing a novel can be overwhelming, especially as you try to keep all your notes and your revised plot outline straight in your head. For every decision you make, there are about a thousand alternate routes the scene or chapter could’ve taken, and it’s a lot to wrap your mind around!
In an effort to take control of
my lifethis process, I’ve created a Revision Binder — a central hub for all of my notes, a way to track my progress, and a handy tool that offers a quick look at my plot, broken down into key moments.
Come on in, I’ll show you what I’m talking about!
Hello, lovely writers! It’s Monday, which means it’s time for another post about the weird, wonderful world of writing. Lately, as I revise this beast of a novel, I’ve been thinking about where my characters initially came from — and how far they’ve traveled since those original conceptions.
From first draft to tenth (or twentieth, who’s counting), some of my characters have changed gender, changed skintone, changed personality or physicality; some look exactly like my original idea but act nothing like them; and some are exactly the same as they were that first day I put pen to page and gave them life. Interestingly, some that have changed the most from my original mental image were characters that I had initially modeled after a random actor — either because the character itself naturally evolved, or because my interest in that actor, for whatever reason, flatlined, and the character morphed accordingly.
I’m wondering, have you ever based a character on a real person? An actor, maybe, or someone from your real life? Do you find that method more helpful, or more constrictive than creating them from scratch? I’m going to go through those three options below, and unpack my feelings about each a little more.
(Coupled with some peeks of my character aesthetics boards on Pinterest, because I can’t get enough of them, okay?)