Friday, July 27, 2012

Strong Starts: Make a Promise with Your First Chapter

Over the last month, I’ve gone through the stages of developing a story. Now let’s take a closer look at some of the parts of creating a strong story. I’ll begin with a series of posts on strong starts. You’ll hear it over and over again — the first chapter, and especially the opening lines, are important. Your opening makes a promise about the rest of the story, article, or book. It tells readers what to expect, setting the stage for the rest of the story to unfold — and hopefully hooking their interest.

What You Promise

The first scene should identify your story’s genre. This can be trickier than it sounds. Say it’s a romance, but the main character doesn’t meet the love interest until later. Can you at least suggest her loneliness or desire for romance? (And get that love interest in there as soon as possible!)

Maybe you’re writing a story involving magic, time travel, ghosts, or a step into another dimension, but you want to show the normal world before you shift into fantasy. That’s fine, but if we start reading about a realistic modern setting and then halfway through magic comes out of nowhere, you’ll surprise your reader — and not in a good way. Your story will feel like two different stories clumsily stitched together.

If you’re going to start “normal” and later introduce an element like magic or aliens, try to hint at what’s to come. Maybe the main character is wishing that magic existed — that’s enough to prepare the reader. In my novel The Ghost on the Stairs, we don’t find out that the narrator’s sister has seen a ghost until the end of chapter 2. But on the opening page, she comments that the hotel “looks haunted” and is “spooky.” Those words suggest that a ghost story may be coming. That’s enough to prep the reader. (The title doesn’t hurt either.)

Your opening should also identify the story’s setting. This includes when and where we are, if it’s historical or set in another country or world. Once again, you don’t want your reader to assume a modern story and then discover halfway through that it’s actually a historical setting. They’ll blame you for their confusion. In a contemporary story, you may not identify a specific city, but the reader should have a feel for whether this is inner-city, small-town, suburban, or whatever.

Who and What’s Up

Your opening pages should focus on your main character. You may find exceptions to this rule, but your readers will assume that whoever is prominent in the opening pages is the main character. Switching can cause confusion. You should also establish your point of view early. If you’ll be switching points of view, don’t wait too long to make the first switch. In novels, typically you want to show your alternate point of view in the second chapter and then switch back and forth with some kind of regular rhythm.

And of course, you want some kind of challenge or conflict in your opening. This doesn’t have to be the main plot problem — you may need additional set up before your main character takes on that challenge or even knows about it. But try to make sure that your opening problem relates to the main problem. It may even lead to it.

In The Ghost on the Stairs, Tania faints at the end of chapter 1. Jon does not yet know why, but this opening problem leads to the main problem — she’d seen a ghost. If I’d used an entirely different opening problem, say stress with their new stepfather, that would have suggested a family drama, not a paranormal adventure.

This book promises adventure in Mayan times.
In a short story, you need to introduce your main conflict even more quickly. A story I sold to Highlights started like this:

Jaguar Paw watched the older Mayan boys play pok-a-tok. The ball skidded around the court as the players tried to keep it from touching the ground. They used their arms, knees, and hips, but never their hands or feet. The best pok-a-tok players were everybody’s heroes. These boys were just practicing. But that meant Jaguar Paw could watch from the edge of the court.

That opening paragraph, 64 words, introduces the main character, identifies the foreign, historical setting, includes a specific location (the ball court), and hints at Jaguar Paw’s desire to be a ballplayer. Genre, setting, main character, and conflict, all up front.

Next week: The Fast Start

In AdvancedPlotting, you’ll get two dozen essays like this one on the craft of writing, plus a detailed explanation of the Plot Outline Exercise, a powerful tool to identify and fix plot weaknesses in your manuscripts. $9.99 paperback, $4.99 ebook.


  1. Following up on promises and hints from the first chapter - excellent. There is nothing worse than getting to the fifth or sixth chapter and thinking, "What about the ___?" Or even worse, getting to the end and feeling cheated.

  2. Right, Karen. I think that can happen when the author is a "pantser" who follows where the story leads, and then doesn't go back and get it under control. It can also happen when the author spends too much time trying to make sure the first chapter is a grabber, without paying attention to how the chapter fits in with the whole. All the focus on getting off to a fast start can mean people are creating a first chapter that almost feels separate from the rest of the book!

  3. Right, Karen. I think that can happen when the author is a "pantser" who follows where the story leads, and then doesn't go back and get it under control.

  4. I usually have to rewrite the first page and sometimes the whole first chapter after I have a completed draft.