I remember when I first started writing how I couldn’t believe how serious people were about the first chapter being vital. I always thought they were nuts. it’s just the beginning, right?

Wrong!

That first chapter is so much more than just “the beginning” of your story. It’s one the two most important chapters in a book. The other being the climax {which will will discuss in a later post}. Next to the climax your first chapter is the most important one of the book.

Why?

Because that little bugger has a lot of important jobs to carry out in order to succeed.

One: It must grab the readers attention immediately. Something, be it an action scene, or a problem your character needs to resolve, or even a bit of dialogue about the problem your character is facing, has to quickly snag your reader’s attention before they put the book back on the shelf and reach for another one. {this goes back to my post about how vital the first sentence/paragraph is and why.}

Two: Ground the readers in the setting. The reader needs to know immediately when {what time period, future, past, present?} and where {location, location, location} the story is taking place. Please use specifics here. Specific sensory details should cue the reader to the exact location.

Three: It sets the tone for what kind of book they are reading and gives a glimpse at the over all style of the writer. Readers need to be clear about what genre the book is by the end of the first chapter, or they will get confused and likely walk away feeling cheated. Make sure you know what genre you are writing and the rules that apply to it, so you can follow those rules specific to the genre and not disappoint your reader’s by “cheating them” {pretending it’s a sci fi action book when it’s really a romance fantasy} and leaving them unsatisfied.

Four: It introduces readers to the main character{s}, but not too many at once. Personally, I like to stick with just the hero and/or heroine in the first chapter. That way readers don’t feel overwhelmed by too many characters and can get a chance to “bond” with your main character{s} If a reader cannot bond with the characters, why should they continue reading to see what happens to them?

Five: It sets the stakes, letting the readers know exactly what is at risk for your character{s} and what they must do to overcome it. The first chapter should satisfy the reader’s need to understand what the story is going to be about, while posing a question that makes them want to stay with your character{s} and see what happens. Arouse the reader’s curiosity and they will want to keep reading. Fail to arouse their curiosity and they will put it back on the shelf unread. Sad, but true.

Six: It establishes the narrator’s voice and Point Of View, which will help you cut down on the dreaded “head hopping” and enables you to avoid confusing your readers. Make sure your narrator’s voice is clear, or you will confuse your readers. Confused readers = lost readers = lost sales and lost future sales and/or lost contracts.

Seven: The first chapter should be a teaser, one that creates a question in the reader’s mind and creates suspense to keep them wanting to learn about and thus turning the pages, to follow your character’s through out the book. Only give the details necessary to firmly establish your character’s situation and what is at stake, while immersing your readers in the setting. It’s a good idea to avoid as much back story as possible within the first one hundred pages. But it is absolutely vital to keep it out of the first chapter. If your readers already know everything, why should they continue reading your book? Keep them guessing and you should keep them interested.

In conclusion over the years {and a plethora of revisions} I’ve learned the hard way everything I mentioned above. Don’t make the mistake of starting just to start. During the revision stage pay special attention to your opening chapter and check for the key elements listed above. If you’re missing them, add them. After all, that’s what revisions are for, to help us clean up our mistakes, tighten prose, and add in what we’ve missed.

P.S. For those interested this blog will update on Fridays. This article appears in a writer/editor collaboration full of writer goodies here: http://thirdsundaybc.com/2012/05/20/vol-1-no-5/

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About kittyb78

Catrina Barton is a licensed Kung-Fu Instructor of the Black Dragon style, and draws on that experience to make her fight scenes both realistic and action packed. She enjoys being surrounded by the stark beauty of mother nature. Whether it's a moon-lit starry sky, or a picnic by a peaceful waterfall cascading from the mountain side. Growing up no matter where she was physically, she always had at least one book in her hands and spent every free moment lost in a book. It's only natural that as she grew up, her passion for reading grew into an even stronger passion for writing, especially Young Adult Paranormal Romances. She is a proud member of many writing and marketing groups, and an active participant at Critique Circle and several other crit groups. Favorite personal quote: "An author cannot grow without both constructive criticism and encouragement."

7 responses »

  1. mjgriffor says:

    Sage advice. The first chapter often decides if a reader will keep on reading.

    • kittyb78 says:

      Thanks for commenting. So true. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve skimmed the first chapter of books on shelves and decided not to buy cause they didn’t offer a reason to go on.

  2. Excellent advice and you are right, if you just start writing without this knowledge it doesn’t come out like that, to get the effect that is required without that upfront intention, becomes the result of continuous rework and editing, not the same process as allowing the subconscious to pour forth a story. It is important, as they are indeed the pages that pull everyone (readers, agents, publishers) in and often the only pages you get to send to an agent.

    It’s an important part of the learning curve, an interesting and helpful short book I picked up useful tips from was Noah Lukeman’s ‘The First Five Pages’ – A Writer’s Guide to Staying out of the Rejection Pile, sage words from the pen of NY literary agent.

    • kittyb78 says:

      Thanks for commenting. Sounds like an excellent book that all writers should read. I know I didn’t cover every aspect of the first chapter, just the ones I felt were most important.

  3. […] Barton presents First Chapters posted at kittyb78, saying, “First chapters are vital to a successful book, but do you know […]

  4. […] Barton presents First Chapters posted at kittyb78, saying, “First chapters are vital to a successful book, but do you know why? […]

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