As a writer, I have a serious problem, and I call it my first chapter.
Nailing your first chapter is one of the hardest things you’ll do as a writer. There is a lot you need to accomplish, often with very little space. If you choose to write linearly (as so many do), you are also entering this chapter with the least amount of practice at the voice and tone of your book.
And it is arguably the most important section of your book.
After all, it is the 10-20 pages that an agent will read to determine whether or not they care about you. It is the 10-20 pages that an editor will read to determine whether or not they care about your book. It is the 10-20… just kidding… it’s the 1-2 first paragraphs a reader will read to determine whether or not your book goes back onto the shelf or into their shopping cart.
You could have the greatest novel of all time, full of memorable characters, twisty plot developments, and fantastical settings, but none of this matters if readers feel no urge to go beyond page 10.
First chapters are derailed for a multitude of reasons across various levels of publishing, including a failure to meet genre expectations, too much backstory, too little backstory, and the inability to establish normalcy. But, perhaps the most common issue is a failure to engage.
If your reader gets bored, that is it. Game over. Roll the credits. As a writer, your goal should be to keep the reader entertained from cover to cover. The point that you lose them is the point that you have failed. If the reader is not engaged from the beginning, well, that is failing before you even get into the game.
If failure to engage seems to be an issue in your first chapter, here are a few remedies to help wake up that snooze fest and give readers something worth staying awake for:
Insert an Action Sequence
If you have ever opened a writing guide, you have probably seen this suggestion before, as it is easily one of the most recommended ways to begin your narrative. This, of course, is for a reason. Not only is action more engaging than a long-winded backstory that serves as a slow zoom-in on your hero(es) right before they begin the adventure worthy of depicting in a novel, but it also allows you to really show your readers who the hero is, why they matter, and why the reader should care.
Some writers suggest starting with an opening action sequence that is separated from the rest of the action of the story, so that you have the time and space to get to know the hero before they begin their primary journey. In Write Your Novel in a Month, Jeff Gerke writes:
Consider the scene that introduces Indiana Jones in Raider of the Lost Ark. That whole jungle sequence, from opening credits to when Indy is flying away in his getaway plane, is his character introduction…That jungle sequence could’ve been a short film all on its own. It works so well as a self-contained storytelling unit.Jeff Gerke, Write Your Novel in a Month, page 108.
In this example, you see Indiana Jones acting fully within his abilities, before the movie shifts into a slower tempo by briefly showing you Indy’s normal routine, which is then interrupted for an entirely new and separate adventure. Because the audience was hooked during opening action, filmmakers could count on them remaining interested in the story as they slow the pace of the film and establish Indy’s backstory before launching into the primary plot of the film.
Mulan (film, 1998) functions in a similar way. In Mulan, audiences are given a sort of prologue to show the threat of an invasion. Then the film moves to what functions as a first chapter, showing Mulan and her family in action as she prepares (and then fails) to meet the expectations of the matchmaker. Then we get a slower pause, focusing on Mulan’s family dynamics, which provides context for her later decisions. Finally, the film emerges from the slow beat with Mulan stealing her father’s armor and going to war, thus moving her into the primary conflict of the story. Again, filmmakers are able to use a few slow moments to the film to insert important information without losing audience attention due the the action-packed opening.
Other examples of this start are numerous. Examples from major-franchise heavyweights include Katniss Everdeen hunting outside of her district (The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, book, 2008), Shrek scaring off the townspeople after going about his unusual daily activities (Shrek, film, 2001), and Claire Randall attempting to rekindle her marriage on a Scottish vacation following the events of World War II (Outlander by Diana Gabaldon, book, 1991).
Start in the Middle of the Action
However, your action sequence does not have to fall outside of the main plot. In fact, many writers would prefer if you just start right in the middle of the action, as this creates a more immediate need for the characters to step up and get moving, and prevents any sort of slow stall following the onset of the first chapter. Chuck Wendig writes in his book The Kick-Ass Writer:
The audience begins where you tell them. They don’t need to begin in the beginning. If I tell the story of a Brooklynite, I don’t need to speak of his birth, or the origins of Brooklyn, or how the Big Bang barfed up asteroids and dinosaurs and a flock of incestuous gods. You start where it matters. You start where it’s most interesting. You begin as late in the tale as you can. The party guest who comes late is always the most interesting one .Chuck Wendig, The Kick-Ass Writer, page 27.
Examples of this sort of starting action include Deadpool finding and fighting with Francis—audiences find out later, via flashback, that it has taken Deadpool months to track him down (Deadpool, film, 2016), Eragon finding a dragon egg (Eragon by Christopher Paolini, book, 2002), and pretty much every episode of a crime TV show ever, with the crime being depicted before cutting to the detective-heroes coming to the scene to solve the crime. All of these examples create an opportunity to throw off any sort of slow start, rushing the audience immediately into the story and forcing them to pay attention. Backstory will either come later, woven into the primary plot, or not at all.
In her book The Writer’s Guide to Beginnings: How to Craft Story Openings that Sell, Paula Munier argues:
The sooner you can evoke emotion in your readers, the soon you draw them into our story. Make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry, make ‘em scream in fear and joy and surprise…Identify the emotion you need to evoke in your readers in your fierce first words. Evoke that emotion successfully, and you’ve engaged your readers –and the pull of that emotion will compel them on to the next page, and the next and the next.Paula Munier, The Writer’s Guide to Beginnings: How to Craft Story Openings that Sell, pages 20-21.
Easier said than done, though. Creating emotional connections take time, and time is not something you have much of in the opening chapter.
The easy way out of this situation is tragic backstory. Take a look at most Disney films. At the onset of many Disney films, we learn that the main character has some sort of tragic backstory and we immediately want to see them rise from their situation and find happiness despite everything they had already overcome in their life. But take this route with caution. The literary landscape is littered with tragic and humbling beginnings, and it is easy to fall back on clichés and stereotypes. So, use this method of emotional bonding only if it will ultimately act upon the main plot and the character effectively throughout the entire book.
Though most texts will try and create positive bonds between you and the heroes at the onset, writers also can emotionally invest a reader in the book by creating negative bonds between you and the villain. An example would be Stephen King’s It, where readers are shown Pennywise and the evil in the town of Derry before being given significant opportunity to see the heroes that will eventually fight it back. In structuring it this way, readers become emotionally invested in the work (with those emotions being fear and suspense, rather than sympathy or hope), thus engaging them in the piece and creating the opportunity for a more organic connection to form later between the reader and the heroes.
If neither of these methods work for your book, and you feel that the only emotional connection you can form with readers will take time, space, and many, many words, then consider utilizing humor. Readers, at the end of the day, want to be entertained more than anything else. By employing humor (a fantastic emotion), you can keep your reader engaged and reading a few dozen pages while you build up the more concrete connections that will keep them going for a few hundred pages.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (by J.K. Rowling, book, 1997) is an excellent example of using humor to hook readers. The first chapter is primarily dedicated to showing the absurdities of the Dursleys’ normalcy in contrast with the eccentricities of the wizarding world. By poking fun at the Dursleys, Rowling is able to establish the necessary information while also keeping the reader engaged for an entire chapter lacking the title character, relying on later chapters to forge the bond between readers and Harry.
Cut Away Exposition
In your first chapter, you need to establish the main characters, the setting, and some of the pieces that end up forcing the main characters into conflict. This is a tall order, and is hard to get through without upending a thick bucket of backstory and exposition over the head of readers. But, if you do that, readers will be too busy wiping the gunk off of themselves and wondering why they ever opened the cover of your book to keep reading.
If you are not getting great feedback on your chapter, and you are not entirely sure why, I encourage you to look for exposition. Scan your chapter and highlight every phrase that is expository. If you have more bright lines than not, you have just found your problem.
Gather together those details and think about the different ways you can present that same information. For example, if you want readers to know that your hero has an insane boss, you do not need to tell them. Have the hero encounter the boss and create a humorous or infuriating conversation between them that demonstrates just that. Not only is this creating action out of an otherwise action-less line, but you are helping your readers come to their own conclusions about
the boss, the hero, and the world the hero is living in, which is far more engaging than the line, “Her boss was insane.”
All that said, I cannot condone your elimination of every line of exposition. Exposition is often necessary for creating clarity and understanding for readers. So, you have to use your critical writer’s eye to figure out where you can cut your exposition back, and where it really needs to stay. In the end, if you find that perfect balance, you are going to have a much better first chapter.
Writing a first chapter is by far one of the most challenging activities for a writer. And, most likely, if you feel it came too easy, it probably isn’t quite right. When has anything worth having ever come easily? At the end of the day, the best piece of advice I can give you when it comes to your first chapter is this: do not bore your reader. If you can accomplish that, then you are well on your way.