Thursday, June 2, 2011

Constructing Your First Chapter

No matter how you think you want to begin the first few pages of your book, there are other people with a vested interest in your first chapter. It may seem unfair but you first need to sell your story before it will ever be read. Your first chapter, and, even more importantly your first page, is your demonstration product for your sales pitch.

Your first sales pitch will be to an agent or publisher, or both. The second sales pitch is to the buyer in the bookstore, who may read the first few pages, a whole chapter, or simply judge your book by its cover and/or blurb. You don’t want to lose a sale with a weak opening page.

Agents and publishers have specific expectations of a first chapter. Although there are always exceptions, following the generally agreed guidelines as to what makes a good first chapter could improve your chances of having the rest of your manuscript requested, and eventually being offered a contract.

The first chapter should begin just before a pivotal event in your protagonist’s life. This is something that forces a change or a decision. The rest of the chapter sets up the action towards this change and the chapter ends with, or shortly after, the event.

With this sequence, you’ve set up a hook to encourage your readers to turn to chapter two, wanting to know how this change is going to affect the protagonist and what s/he’s going to do to resolve it.

A good outline of your story can really help when it comes to identifying where to begin your story. Sometimes the beginning point is not where you initially thought it was. It can even take several drafts and a thorough retrospective analysis of the plot before a better beginning point becomes clear. But it’s worth it.

Elsa Neal
Elsa Neal is a writer based in Melbourne, Australia. Browse through the resources for writers available at her website or follow her writing insights at her Fictional Life Blog.

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  1. Yes, my original first chapter is now chapter nine. And my final first chapter was only a few throw away thoughts in my first draft. I read somewhere once that one must just write that first chapter knowing that you may have to turf it - that way you don't become too attached to it.
    Judy, South Africa.
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  2. I wrote my first chapter knowing it wasn't going to stay, but I had to start somewhere! I think what is currently chapter five will end up being the first chapter - I may have started the story too early :)

  3. Great post, Elle. Sarah raises a great point, too--you "start" writing a book because you must start somewhere. But it often isn't until you've finished writing the book that you can ascertain where the story truly "opens."

    But Judy, the word "turf" made me wince! While you certainly will edit and shape your project once it's drafted, there is never an effort in writing that is wasted. You generate the material you need so you can see the whole story and its world; only from that you can sculpt it.

  4. Now you tell me! Perhaps I shouldn't have started my last book with, "When I was born ..."

  5. Where my book starts now is a long way from where I originally started it. Jumping four years ahead in the protagonist's life created a much different person and goal.

  6. First chapters are tricky. I've stopped giving myself pressure over it and just write a couple of versions and decide which one I like best.

  7. I've written the beginning of my novel at least six times. When I originally started, I didn't know my MC as well as I do now, but I also was thinking only of the action and hooking. I forgot I needed to show some of her normal life before the inciting incident.

    I've also struggled with feeling like writing that isn't going into my book is a waste, but I've gotten past that. Everything we write makes us better, so there is no such thing as wasting it.

  8. It's not easy deciding where to start a story. Do you describe a setting first or plunge right in? I think the main thing is to put something down. Otherwise, you'll never get anything done. Then, later go back and decide if it will hold enough interest to be the catalyst for someone to read further.

    Morgan Mandel

  9. Sometimes first chapters just show up though. I've got a pretty fantastic first chapter in the book I'm working on. It's the chapter between that and chapter 3 I'm having trouble getting hitched up properly.

    Hmm... Probably, I need the blog entry "Bashing Your Head Against Chapter Two".


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