How to write a great first chapter

Guest Post by C. Michelle Jefferies

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C. Michelle Jefferies practically grew up in a library, and she spent her early years reading books with her mother. When Michelle was ten, she realized she wanted to write stories instead of just reading them. In high school, she met another writer, who inspired her to write a full-length book instead of just short stories. Michelle finished that 189-page handwritten novel the summer of her junior year. She married her best friend and put her writing on the back burner while she focused on raising her seven children and volunteering as a breastfeeding counselor in her community. When her children were old enough for her to spend a few hours on the computer without them burning the house down, Michelle returned to writing and hasn’t stopped since. She can often be found writing or editing with a child in her arms or under her feet. With a passion for secret agents and all things Asian, she writes technical suspense and urban fantasy about bad boys turned good. Lately, she can be found in a yoga studio learning to meditate, and become more mindful.

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Let’s talk about first chapters. It’s something that causes a lot of stress and debate among writers — especially in terms of what is needed versus what is often presented or thought is needed.

First chapters are the reader’s first glimpse into the character’s ordinary life. Therefore, while the writing needs to be anything but ordinary, the subject matter should be ordinary and interesting but not poke-my-eye-out boring. Yeah I know. Not the easiest thing in the world to accomplish.

While we no longer live in a world where you can talk about your setting for four chapters before even introducing a character, you can’t drop your character right into the conflict either. Let’s talk about why.

The first chapter is meant to give the reader a taste of several things. Character, setting, conflict and ordinary life are the main ones. But remember, it’s a taste not a full-on buffet. Overload of information on any subject is a big no, no. Readers don’t need it; readers don’t want it. What they want is an excuse to start to fall for the character. And that can’t be accomplished in an info dump of setting, conflict, or character, or by dropping the character into a massive firefight or fight for their lives, where we don’t know enough or care enough to appreciate the character’s plight. Resonance between character and reader happens subtly, almost unknowingly.  With the slow falling in love that happens as the story progresses, we get to know about the character, plot and setting in manageable bits and pieces.

First, let’s talk about what doesn’t go into a first chapter.

Prologues. Unless you are writing epic fantasy, your book probably shouldn’t have a prologue. Most prologues are written in either omniscient POV or in a POV that isn’t represented in the book. This throws the reader. Often times, expecting the prologue’s character to have a significant role in the book or the style to be one way and it’s not. A lot of times I’ve read a prologue that gives away so much information I don’t need to read the rest of the book. The information that is usually included in a prologue can be doled out in small bits throughout the story. It doesn’t need to be at the beginning or all at once.

Flashbacks, dreams, and backstory. This information is better presented in small ways that clue the reader in as the story progresses. I’ve heard almost every big time editor and agent, if not all of them, say the sure sign of a beginning author is the character waking from a dream and not knowing where they are, or something along that line. And that, for them, is an automatic rejection.

Go back and re-read that last sentence before composing any type of argument. Automatic rejection. Why give yourself an automatic black mark when you don’t have to?

Lengthy setting or character description. We don’t need to know exactly where they are or what they look like, at least not right now. Give us a line, or two, but please for the love of awesome first chapters, don’t bore the reader on the first page.

Focus on the wrong thing. We will talk about this more in what to include. Suffice it to say that to point out to your reader the wrong things, you are breaking that very first promise between reader and author which is, ‘what is going to happen in this story?’.

Change of focus. This is very important because the reader takes a lot of information about the plot of the book based on the first chapter. If in the first three pages your story talks about one subject and then the next five pages, the story jumps to another focus, you are confusing the reader. Make up your mind, choose one subject and follow it through. At least for that chapter.

What to include in your first chapter.

Who: A basic intro to your main character. Who are they? What are they doing? What are they like? What drives them/makes them tick?

Where/when: A basic intro to where the story is happening. Is it in the city? Outer space? On a ranch? Past? Present? Future? Give us little clues to let us know these things.

What: What is the character doing right now? Why is it important? What do they want to be doing? Is that more important?

Why: What are the stakes right now? What are the stakes if things change or don’t change?

The story’s focus, or the story promise: Make sure that if your story is about a certain thing or a certain genre that the first chapter reflects that. If your story is a YA with a snarky sixteen year old as the MC, the first chapter should be all about the character. Not about the city he lives in, or his friend, or an object that is only mentioned once and then never mentioned again. If the character is fighting against the powers that be in their world, the focus should be that from the beginning. If the focus is about a book they found that will save the world, the focus should be on the world that needs to be saved and perhaps, some rumor about a book.

This might seem overwhelming at first but give it time and a lot of opportunities to be re-written and critiqued. Read your favorite author’s first chapters and dissect them. What works. What doesn’t. Why?

Remember this: even famous authors rewrite first chapters several times — even going back and rewriting them after they’ve finished the book, because the story premise is different and, therefore, that critical first chapter should reflect that.

Blue skies, and happy writing everyone. Oh, and see you topside.

About Bonnie Gwyn Johnson

Bonnie Gwyn handles all guest bloggers on this website. Contact her if you would like to volunteer your time to share writing advice for The Authors' Think Tank.

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