Today’s post is going to be on writing the beginning of your story. Now, I will admit that I am not a fan of writing the first chapter.
Even with a solid outline I never start on Chapter One.
I much prefer to jump into the middle and start writing… in fact, I don’t often follow the logical, linear path of the story even if I know it. But any-whoo, that’s just my style. Eventually, even I have to get around to writing the first chapter.
First Chapter Problems
The problem with first chapters (or I should say writing first chapters first!) is that we can easily get carried away dumping information in there. After all, we know the reader knows nothing about our world, characters so we need to set it all up, right?
So let’s get everything down first. It is a common thing that happens and is why the first chapters are usually the ones that get the most work-overs.
Let’s cover some basics.
Introduce A Character
Either the protagonist or the antagonist needs to be introduced in chapter one. They don’t have to be on the first page but they need to be in there. It works better if the first character we meet is the protagonist, but it’s not always required.
However, DON’T go overboard with the physical description of said character. Too much info-dumping never goes down well and readers don’t always remember that shit. Let the reader build up the image and don’t just include a list of descriptions either!
Example: Anne had straight blonde hair that brought out her blue eyes and high cheekbones. Her skin was tanned from sunbathing… in case you were unaware – this is dull, REALLY dull to read
Ease Up On The Scenery
Yes, we need to set the scene, but we don’t need the intricate details of the wallpaper in your protagonist’s flat (unless it is made of hieroglyphics that lead to some secret lost temple!… wow that would just be an awful story…).
Even in an alien world, we don’t need the first three pages of chapter one to be describing the landscape in all its glory or even the detailed culture of a rock-loving alien people (if you have rock-loving aliens, that is).
In the same vein, don’t describe a mundane routine. Yes, maybe your character will get out of bed, have a wash, get dressed, brush their teeth, use the toilet… we don’t need all that crap unless it has a real point to the story. Most often, it doesn’t.
Feel free to describe some snippet, such as them dragging on their rumpled clothes from the night before, still stinking of yesterday’s perfume. Fine, that adds something but don’t walk us through their day.
Stay Out Of The Bedroom
We all start our days by waking up and getting out of bed, so writers seem to think that a novel should be the same.
Not sure who decided on that. So preferably ditch the bed, the dream, the crowing rooster and choose another point to start. Something more active or something that triggers a sensation.
If you really like your waking-up scene, fine just put it somewhere else in your novel. Or if you want to include it in chapter one, something interesting better be happening. Not just waking up and starting the day.
So, unless your character isn’t happily brushing his teeth, while staring at the reflection of two dead bodies in the mirror, leave the morning routine out.
Now – I appreciate the hypocrisy here as chapter one of Dark Hart actually has my protagonist waking up. However, it is done not just to get her out of bed and starting the day, but to introduce you to her state of mind.
Check out the excerpt below (be nice, it is still a draft so it’s not great, but you see what I mean)
One heavy lid peeled open to reveal a pale grey eye that stared into the gloom. From the window opposite, a thin shaft of daylight had managed to pierce the room’s darkness by slipping through a broken blind.
Trinity paid the light no attention. Instead she was straining her senses to find what had woken her. A gentle groan of a warped floorboard far away. The tinkle of keys pulled from a pocket and then the click of a lock withdrawing.
With a slow, shaking breath, her hand slid off the gun’s grip and pulled back beneath the warm blankets. Something had been missing. Something that had broken the pattern. No shoe heels in the corridor. A small change but noticeable. Enough to draw her out of a restless sleep. Enough to make her heart race.
~excerpt from Dark Hart
No False Hooks
These usually come in the style of dreams starting at the very beginning of a chapter. Where we are led to believe X is happening when really it was all a dream! Even in movies, this is pretty annoying and usually really obvious. It’s a cheap trick and most readers are getting tired of it.
Reading your character was just torn to pieces by a pack of wolves only to find them sitting up in bed, clutching their chest and staring wide-eyed at the wolf poster on their wall is just naff.
Avoid Info Dumps
This comes in the form of heavy narrative that just dumps a shitload of exposition whereby you inform the reader of a ton of information and backstory that takes up most of the first chapter.
Yes, there are things you know that the readers won’t and yes you need to let them know it, however, you will need to build up your ability to thread that info throughout the novel. We don’t need your map building right in front of us.
Some backstory is fine, ALL the backstory is too much. The best way is to avoid this in the first chapter, if possible.
Let your readers meet the character and drop some shit on them pronto, fill in the backstory later or weave it through gently.
Think of it this way, if the first page or paragraph is descriptive about the room, the land, the culture and we haven’t clapped eyes on a character doing something – then you’re info dumping.
Really need too? Fine, info dump but when you’re editing go back to that first chapter and cut all that crap out.
Drop In Some Action
Start the page with something happening! Get the reader into the thick of it immediately.
You don’t have to leave them confused, but something happening right from the first line will do more to keep a reader than overly setting a scene.
Side-Step The Heavy Violence Or Sex
When writing chapter one it is best to keep the extreme violence or steamy sex out of it.
Your book can be full of both of those things, but it’s generally considered not the best to have them right upfront. It can be off-putting to readers to have that straight away.
It can also put off editors and agents unless it is specifically erotica. Even in erotica, there is often something building up before they get straight to the sex.
Bring The Cast In Slowly
This is especially important in genres where you have:
a) a lot of characters
b) a lot of characters with complicated names
c) a lot of characters with complicated names and with lots of places with complicated names!
I’ve read a few stories were in the first chapter there like twelve people introduced all with first and second names that took several read-throughs to pronounce, as well as place names that were just as complicated.
It got to the point that by chapter 5, I have no friggin’ clue who half of the people were. This seems to be a big pitfall in fantasies especially when people seem to feel the need to name characters with excessively unique and yet similar names to each other.
I think it comes of writers not realising that while they have lived with these characters for months even years and know them well, that a reader is learning about them slowly.
So dumping a ton of hard-to-pronounce names along with description and scenery right at the front can be a little overwhelming.
Books And Movies
Take a look at the opening scenes to a few movies or read the first three pages of your favourite novels. What was it about those scenes that made you want to keep watching/keep reading?
How many of them info dumped? How many had the protagonist getting out of bed and brushing their teeth etc?
What sort of action or conflict did they throw at you in those early moments? How were you introduced to the characters?
You could have some cracking ideas and conflicts and hooks, but if they all happen in chapter 3 and onwards then you are going to struggle to keep your readers interested long enough to get there.
When I write my first chapters (as mentioned) I write them late on. I also write them knowing they will be rubbish – even if I think they are good, compared to the rest of the novel they will need the most work because it’s the crux of the whole book – it has to keep the readers reading. No one owes you to complete reading your book. You have to make it worth their while.
Often my first chapters are shuffled about so I will write something really intense and realise that THIS needs to be the first chapter and will re-jig the chapters so that a more action-y scene is right at the beginning.
If you are struggling with how to start the novel – then don’t start it at the beginning, if you can see the action in chapter three, start there. Get everything written down then take a look at what can be moved to chapter one.
Maybe your first chapter is boring because you have added all this exposition that you think the reader needs.
So when the book is finished go back to the beginning and figure out how to get all that backstory and information throughout the book. Hopefully while you were writing the book, you will have already woven backstory and world/culture info throughout.
Readers aren’t stupid and can usually keep up even if you dump them in the middle of an action scene without doing full introductions to everyone.
Let me add something about prologues. These are usually mentioned by writers as “OMG don’t use them!”
Now, I admit prologues are very much a split decision with people. However, I have no problem with a prologue if done correctly. Prologues are to give the reader extra information and are found at the front of the book.
A number of my favourite books had prologues and I found them to fit perfectly and they worked really well.
They both had scenes that were from the past – too far back to fit naturally with the rest of the story, but something happened in that time that affected or led on to the story.
Now sometimes you can find a place within the novel to fit the information but it is usually done as narrative, whereas a prologue can give you the scope of having a scene with character interaction and dialogue. It can “set the scene” without bogging down the flow of the novel.
So imagine that something in your story happened 100 years ago that is now affecting things in the present. Jamming info about that time period can be cumbersome but a well-written prologue can create a scene to explain and lead on the story.
(ahh yes, I do have my own list of don’t for prologues).
Don’t make it boring – this is not the place to put excessive amounts of description and narrative that is unnecessary. Set the scene yes but avoid any filler.
Don’t thought-dump – again this is not a place for every single piece of information you think the reader might need to “set the scene”.
Some of it can be woven through the story as normal, but anything really relevant or interesting as a scene itself can be put into the prologue.
Don’t make them too long. Lots of people skip prologues (I find that weird because if the writer put it in, there might be something useful) a short prologue is best, get the information out and make sure you add a hook in to keep them reading. Few pages, tops. Don’t aim for it to be a large chapter in its own right.