I am one of those people who actually try not to read a whole lot of writing advice at once. Don’t get me wrong, it is important to learn from other writers; it’s how we grow in our profession. However, I used to try to take it all in and use everyone’s rules of “5 things your book must have” and “don’t make these 9 new author mistakes.” And let me tell you, trying to follow all of them is both exhausting and pointless. Now I have 10 things to share with you that I have learned about writing the first chapter of a novel. These are things just to take into consideration. You may find that your particular story doesn’t need all ten ideas pointed out or maybe you’ve never considered them before and there is room for them in your story. I will use examples from my current work in progress.
1. Make your first setting significant. The opening scene should be set in a place of high significance. This does not need to be the setting most often used and it does not need to be the place most important to your MC. It should, however, help set the tone of the story and be well described enough so the setting itself appears to the reader just as a character would. For example, in my fantasy novel, the first setting is the outside of the Fortress – it is large, and encircled by a razor-wire fence as well as a protection spell. Also, the MC is arriving after dark, it’s cold outside and there are mountains nearby. Nearly the entire book is set there. Plus, it immediately sets the theme of darkness and challenge that my MC is about to face.
2. Introduce the Main Character. If your MC, the person the story is all about, is not in the first chapter, your readers probably won’t go on reading. If all they get is setting and a weather report, they will be confused and probably bored. My MC’s name is the 4th work in my novel. Your MC does not have to be introduced in the first sentence. Maybe not even in the first paragraph, but definitely in the first chapter. The sooner your readers meet the MC, the better. You want to get them rooting for your character as soon as possible. If the readers are not invested in a character, the book is meaningless to them.
3. Describe the Main Character. This is where the “grocery list” comes in: eye color height, skin tone, hair color, clothes. All the “looks” we come to expect to have described. And these things are a great starting point. But at some point add in something extra. For Kya, I point out that she has her dad’s fawn-brown hair pulled back into two braids and she has the same sea-green eyes as her brother. This way, my readers get a picture of her looks and some insight to her family. And if family is mentioned by the author, family is probably important to the character. Other things to consider are how worn the clothes are, if the clothes fit properly, makeup, tanned or pale skin, hairstyles, long or chewed fingernails…All these things can give insight into the person’s life while giving us a physical picture. For more suggestions on description, I highly recommend Bryn Donovan’s site, where she has several master lists for writers.
4. Show how your MC normally acts/behaves. In the first chapter of my novel, we see how excited Kya is to arrive at the Fortress – a place she’s been told she will train, learn to use her magic, and ultimately join the fight against Lord Wyren. So we see her being excited, meeting Nick and becoming his friend, and talking about her family. This sets the readers up for the change ahead. Without knowing how a character normally behaves, any significant change or challenge that follows will not be as impactful. When Kya discovers what really goes on inside the Fortress, it is shocking to her. That shock must be conveyed to my readers.
5. Give some backstory. The operative word here is “SOME”. Don’t over-do it! In your first chapter, your goal is to pull readers in and get them excited about what is going to happen! Don’t bog them down with tons of backstory! It’s easy to get caught up in your MC’s life up to this point – because you created them and you know all about them. Kya has a lot of backstory. So does Nick and especially Leo. But instead of dropping it all on my readers at once, it’s better to sprinkle it throughout the story. A bit of Nick here, a little of Kya there…This keeps the backstory from (a) taking up too much space and boring readers, (b) taking away from the point of the scene, and (c) it helps add length to the story by having these little snippets to spread out over a longer course of time. If you feel you have to give a lot of explanation for something, try to put it into dialogue, such as one person explaining something to another. This way it won’t look like a block of information but a way of getting to know a character’s tone.
6. Include an eye-catching event. The first chapter does not have to have the most exciting part of the book. And in fact, it shouldn’t! Again, the first chapter is setting the tone of the story. But it should have some kind of exciting scene to grab the reader’s attention and make them want to read the rest of the story. For example, this scene could be something that happens directly to the MC, or it could introduce the antagonist.
7. Put an obstacle out right away. Put something in your MC’s way. This obstacle is the whole reason the story is happening at this point in your character’s life. It does not need to be the ultimate obstacle, but it does need to deter your character in some way. It needs to interrupt the flow and make your character re-think what they’re doing. Kya was working on her uncle’s farm, but now she is old enough to go to training. So she’s uprooted from the farm, put on a truck, shipped to the Fortress, and put into a clan with a bunch of strangers – thus, the story begins! What will happen?
8. Make clear what is important to your MC. If family is important to your MC, it will effect their choices. If being in control is important, show how they are self-reliant. If wealth and power drives them, how do they treat the people around them? Whatever is important to them will drive them throughout the story and affect how they treat other characters, including the antagonist.
9. Time. Year, season, semester, work shift, time of day, day of the week…Give your readers some sort of starting point so they can follow the coming events. For Kya, the year does not come into play until well into the book. But I do point out right away that it is night time; so from there my readers can keep track of how many days have passed.
10. MC’s current goal. Your MC has to want something. A new home, a dog, someone to date, an opponent they want to defeat…everyone wants something. Your readers need to know as soon as possible what your MC wants. Again, this will help get them rooting for the character. Even if this goal is quickly changed, establish what the reader is trying to do; this will give future changes significance.
So those are the top ten things I have learned to incorporate into my first chapter. Do you agree? Can you think of any others? I’d love to hear what you always try to establish in your opening pages!
Also! I am working on another character tag to post some time in the month of May. A character tag matches up a question or situation with a book’s character who best fits. This is a fun way for readers to get to know new characters. For example, “Who would get thrown out of Walmart and why?” or “Who jokes the most?” So I am asking for my readers’ help with this. Comment with your funny or serious situations or questions and I will add them to my next character tag!! Leave as many as you like! Your name will not be mentioned (unless you want me to). Have fun and thank you for your help!! 🙂