I am sitting here at my computer, starting work again on The Veil. I had written an earlier nightmare sequence, but have just started in on Chapter 1’s meat.
It feels as though some asshole decided to lay down a brick wall in my way.
This isn’t an uncommon feeling to myself or other writers I’ve spoken with. Chapter 1 is always our greatest foe; the ending can be a tough thing to work on, but the beginning is where the largest source of frustration comes from.
Why is Chapter 1 so difficult? A number of reasons. Let me break it down on what is expected of a good first chapter.
- You need to explain who your protagonist is and what the setting is. Waiting till Chapter 4 to figure out that the setting is actually Steampunk and your protagonist is a peg-legged weremonkey is FAR too late; you need this locked down in Chapter 1.
- Your first paragraph (some say sentence, but I take a slight liberty here) needs to be a killer hook. Someone dies, the world ends, a bomb goes off, that fish your character ate last night decides to come back up for round 2, ect. You need your reader intrigued from the very first set of words you put on the page. Waiting till Chapter 2 to get the ball rolling is, again, too damn late. You can’t even do it half way through the first chapter; it must be done in the first paragraph at least.
- Explaining who your protagonist is (see point 1) is only part of the problem. You need to convey a reason to your reader about why they need to care enough for them that they’ll not only finish your chapter, but suffer through 70K-120K words to find out what happens to them. Think about those numbers for a second; 75,000 to 120,000 words is the average length of a fiction paperback. That is a lot of words that you’re asking – nay, begging – your reader to stick around for. If you don’t sell your character well enough in the first chapter, have fun with that.
- You need to start laying the groundwork for your story. This means showing what forces are working against your protagonist, what the world they inhabit is like (is it cruel and dark, sunny and joyful, ect), and even who some of the other characters are. Waiting till Chapter 7 to find out the nature of the world is, again, far too late; you’ve got to get this nailed down from the onset.
- You need to keep up the pace. If you want to do a massive info dump in Chapter 1, go right ahead; I just can’t guarantee I, as your reader, will be awake or having any care left to give by the end of it. You need to not only put the ball in play, but you also gotta keep that sucker rolling. If you don’t keep it rolling, your reader will stop caring and put your story down. Since that’s basically storytelling suicide, and I think we all understand that suicide is bad, you don’t want this to happen.
- This is the toughest part: you need to do all of those previous points (1-5) with absolutely no prior chapters or sequences to reference. Your reader is starting the novel from this very sequence, so you have nothing to say, “We’ve already covered who the protagonist is,” or so on. The reason being: you haven’t written that prior section, so Chapter 1 is the starting point for both the reader and the writer. You have to create a world, inform your reader about it, create an investment in the reader, and then keep the story moving forward, all within your first few thousand words. No pressure, right?
Quite the list, eh? That list is why Chapter 1 is the toughest mother you’ll ever find. Some might say that the last chapter is the toughest one, and they aren’t far off.
In your last chapter, you’ve got to tie up all those loose ends in the thread that is your story (or leave just a few dangling if you’re thinking for a series). The reason that Chapter 1 takes the cake, however, is that it’s the chapter where you have to make those threads in the first place.
By the end, hopefully, your readers are invested enough that they want to see what happens at the ending. In the beginning, however, they have no such investment or prior knowledge of your tale (because there was nothing before the beginning).
In the time spent writing this article, I have also deleted the first 800 post-nightmare words for my first chapter. The pacing wasn’t strong enough to keep myself, let alone the reader, engaged in the story. I’ve got another idea for how to spin the beginning so that it should get some vigor in it.
So yeah, can’t go wrong with both a discussion and some progress.
Update: Just a quick reminder folks, the June issue for eFiction is available. Inside, amongst the other great stories, is my latest release – Dawnstar. Be sure to check it out.