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Anatomy of a First Chapter: Make Your Beginning Count

January 22, 2013 Critiquing, Revision, Writing 10 Comments

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By Dell Smith [Photo by delgrosso]

First chapters. They introduce your fictive world to your readers. Your locations, your characters, the story’s tone, and the conflict or conflicts. Your first chapter essentially trains your readers how to read your story, how to navigate what comes next. It’s the set up for everything that follows. And as every writer is painfully aware, it’s the first chapter, the first few pages, the first couple paragraphs, which sell your book. If you don’t hook the reader in the first chapter, then you’ve likely lost them.

So what choices do you make for first chapter? What sort of lens do you work with? Do you start tight and zoom out to a wide view of your story? Do you start with a wide shot—an encompassing swath showing all of humanity? Or a line of dialogue between your main characters—tight, close? There’s no magic answer—each novel has a unique vision, developed independent of all others. And because of this, there is no one way to start all novels. So instead of listing off all the many options available to you, I will instead relate a story about my experience editing a first chapter of my novel based on reader feedback.

Not too long ago a trusted reader finished reading a draft of my novel. I value this person’s feedback. When we met to discuss the manuscript, she admitted she’s not a big novel reader anymore. She thinks much of the stuff aimed at a thirty-something women comes across as disingenuous, pandering, and worst of all, unbelievable. After she read my novel, she told me that she got my story, and that I presented it in a way that seemed real to her. Cloud nine. I write good women’s fiction!  (Who knew?)

Then she went on to say that she didn’t really get into my story until after the first chapter. Whoops. Busted back down to earth. But I wasn’t surprised. I had always felt my first chapter didn’t really sing for its dinner as loudly as the rest of the novel, but I hoped nobody would notice. Thanks to this insightful critique I couldn’t ignore the obvious any more.  The problem now was how to make it better. My trusted reader isn’t a writer, and had no specific ideas about what I could do to make the first chapter more immediate and engrossing. It would be up to me to figure it out.

I have a hard time returning to a piece of writing after I’m sure it’s finished. I mean, it’s done, what else can I do to it? But I knew I had to approach the first chapter in a new way. I started by reading it over, and making a few small changes. Nothing major, just getting my feet wet. Then I broke down the structure of it. It’s only 11 pages, but it needs to introduce the main character, show his roadblocks, let us know what he wants, and set him in motion.

Vital stats: Main character: Keith, a tavern manager from Somerville, Massachusetts. Check. His wife, Sarah, has left him. Righto. He needs to figure out why she disappeared and try to save his marriage. Okay. So he heads off to find her. Done. Simple enough, I guess. But if I don’t make the introduction to this story engaging and prove I can string sentences together in a way that compels readers to stay with me for the full 335 pages, then I’m screwed.

Let’s break it down. My first chapter has three parts:

Part 1: When the story opens Keith is already on the road, in an Arkansas motel room at night. He’s brought along his wedding video and watches the vows again, looking for clues about why Sarah left.

Part 2: Keith rolls out of his motel bed the next morning. He goes to the motel lobby to partake of the continental breakfast and strikes up a conversation with Heather, a young woman who is traveling with an abusive boyfriend. She will play a role in Keith’s journey: in chapter three he will help her escape the creepy dude and she’ll accompany him cross-country and help him find his wife.

Part 3: Flashback to five days earlier in Somerville and Keith coming home at midnight from a double shift, finding the apartment empty and all the lights burning. Sarah has left a note saying she’s sorry, she still loves him, but she has to leave. Cue anger, confusion, and desperation.

So, what to do? Scrap it and start over? Not yet. I felt I had all the pieces, but they just weren’t in the right order. I decided to switch parts 2 and 3. The flashback now happens after Keith watches the video and ends before he wakes up and gets coffee and meets Heather. Now it feels more like Keith has almost self-induced the flashback of finding Sarah’s note because he watched their wedding video just before bed. And in the morning when Keith walks to the lobby, he’s thinking of Sarah, feeling like he dreamt of her even though he can’t remember the dream. So there’s continuity there. More of a logical scene flow.

Why don’t I start the book with Keith finding the note, then moving the action forward from there? I did try it. But it seemed over-the-top. It’s like starting a horror movie with one of the main characters getting killed. I had to build up to it and surround it with scenes that aren’t at the same pitch to cushion a potentially histrionic gigglefest of a scene (“Sarah! Why did you leave me?? What have I done to make you curse me so??? What will become of me??!!?).

So, while considering how to revise your first chapter (come on, you know you want to!), ask the following questions to gauge how much work you need to do:
•    Do the opening pages compel you to read on?
•    Do you introduce the conflict(s) clearly?
•    Does the first chapter introduce the structure of the novel?
•    If you have multiple main characters, who should be introduced first?
•    Do you start with a small, intimate moment? Does this fit your chapter, your novel?

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Currently there are "10 comments" on this Article:

  1. Tim says:

    Very nice, however, I’m waiting for page 2. Seems like you’re just getting into it.

  2. Josh Magill says:

    Great piece, Dell. Structure seems to be the issue many writers fight with (including me). It is scary to revamp something once it’s “done.” You are right–we want to–but it feels like an indictment that we didn’t do it right the first time, like rejection of our own writing. But it is absolutely necessary. Thanks for an enlightening piece.

  3. Emily says:

    This is a very good insight and help, although ‘damn it’ I’m currently on page 20 of my ‘novel’. Is it too early to think about this or should I keep going, carry on the lines I’m on or start at the beginning again and work through it.
    I know its each to their own and you can’t tell me exactly which way to go, but do you wish that you had followed through with you initial belief that it needed altering instead of waiting to see if anyone noticed?

    • Dell Smith Dell Smith says:

      Think of it this way — you need to keep some kind of beginning regardless of where you are in your draft. Because chances are you will wind up changing it along the way. When you finish your novel, you’ll have a much better understanding of how it should begin. I wouldn’t get hung up on it so early in the process

      I’m currently working on a novel with four main characaters, four points of view. I really have no idea how to begin the novel. I’ve tried a few different things. I know the beginning I currently have will no doubt change before I’m done.

      Good luck!

  4. Rachel says:

    Hey Dell,

    I’m the senior editor for pubble.me, an email newsletter that focuses on all aspects of digital publishing launching this week.

    I think this article is awesome, and I’m very interested in including it in an upcoming issue of our newsletter. I would be able to provide you with a bio box and backlinks to your article.

    You can email me to grant permission and to let me know where I can grab a bio and where you would like us to point backlinks for your article. Also reply if you have any questions.

    Thanks,

    Rachel

  5. […] Anatomy of a First Chapter: Make Your Beginning Count […]

  6. […] Dell Smith talks about making your first chapter […]

  7. This couldn’t have come at a better time for me, since I’m in the process of revising and have been thinking that my first chapter could use a rewrite. I’ve rewritten it so many times that I’m tempted to simply start with a blank page again, to see if I can approach it from a new angle. The questions you ask at the end of this post are helpful. Thanks!

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Dell Smith

Dell Smith
Dell Smith is a fiction writer. He grew up on Cape Cod and left town to study filmmaking. He writes stories and novels, and works as a technical writer at a software company northwest of Boston. He has also worked as a videotape editor, cook, music video lackey, TelePrompTer operator, accounts receivable clerk, assistant film editor, caterer, roadie, flea market vendor, videotape duplicator, and wedding videographer. He has lived in Worcester, Bridgeport, Van Nuys, Billerica, Ithaca, Florham Park, Fairfield, and Simi Valley. He brings his life experience to bear in his fiction. His writing has appeared in Fiction, Tropus, J. Journal, Lynx Eye Quarterly, and Grub Street’s 10th anniversary anthology Hacks. He is a regular contributor to The Review Review and maintains a blog, Unreliable Narrator at dellsmith.com, featuring essays on movies, writing, and the publishing biz, along with book reviews and author interviews. He is currently writing a novel. Read Full

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