I’ve been talking about the promise a first chapter makes and how to open strong. Now try these exercises to explore how the first chapter makes promises.
Pick up one of your favorite novels. Reread the first chapter. What promises does it make? From your knowledge of the book, does it fulfill those promises? Repeat this exercise with other books. Try it with short stories and articles, judging the promises made in the first few lines.
When you start reading a new novel, pause at the end of the first chapter. Could you identify the genre, main character, point of view, and setting? Is the main character facing a challenge? Make a note of these promises. At the end of the book, decide whether each promise was fulfilled. Try reading short stories and articles this way as well.
Think about your work in progress. What do you want to promise? Check your first chapter for each of the following:
- Does it clearly identify the genre?
- Does it identify the setting, including time period, country, and urban/rural/suburban lifestyle? Does it suggest whether this is a school story, a family story, an epic interstellar journey, or whatever?
- Does it introduce the main character and possibly one or more other important characters?
- Does it clearly establish the point of view and the tone of the book (funny, lyrical, intellectual, or whatever)?
- Is a problem introduced quickly? If it is not the primary plot problem, does the opening challenge at least relate to or lead to the main problem?
Few authors wind up using their original openings. Some authors write a novel, then throw away the first chapter and write a new first chapter — the one that belongs there. It seems like it’s almost impossible to write a strong opening until you’ve finished the rest of the book. The final version of the opening may actually be the last thing we write!
Openings are a struggle for many of us, but don’t worry about the beginning during the first draft. Chances are it will change completely anyway, so wait until you have a solid plot before you start fine-tuning your opening. You need to know the rest of your story in order to figure out what your opening should be.
Don’t stress about the opening during your early drafts, but do make sure you fix it later. Keep in mind that fixing the beginning may involve throwing it out altogether and replacing it with something else or simply starting later in the story. In the end, you’ll have the beginning you need.
In Advanced Plotting, you’ll get two dozen essays like this one on the craft of writing. Advanced Plotting is designed for intermediate and advanced writers: you’ve finished a few stories, read books and articles on writing, taken some classes, attended conferences. But you still struggle with plot, or suspect that your plotting needs work.
Advanced Plotting can help.