Thursday, 31 July 2008

The First Chapter

I've had a few questions lately along the lines of - 'how important is the first chapter?', 'how do you know where to start the book?' and 'should I give the background information for the story up front?'.

The first chapter is where the author has the opportunity to grip the reader's attention. Get them involved so they know that this is a story that won't be putting down real soon. The first chapter should introduce your main character/s in a situation of conflict. And that situation should announce the theme of the book.

The first chapter should start just before a major scene or the build up to one. For example, in my first book the main character finds himself on the wrong side of his favoured skill, interrogation. I introduced the main character in a situation of conflict and in a seemingly impossible circumstances that he needs to escape from.

A lot of first-time writers want to start their book with background information that they think the reader would need to know. I tend to think this is because authors spend so much time developing their character/s that we want to impart all of that information to our reader straight away. Not necessary. A paragraph here or there throughout the book in the narrative or through dialogue can fill in the gaps on background information that value-adds to the story.

The first paragraph needs to captivate or hook the reader. Give them something that spikes their interest to keep on reading. Last thing we want to do is bore the reader - that applies to the whole story, but to do it in the first paragraph can lose a lot more potential readers. I also think it is important to introduce the main character into the first paragraph. It lets the reader know who they are dealing with for the rest of the book. It gives them an initial visual that will shape their perceptions along the journey.

First chapters take time to get right. Don't be afraid of spending the extra time on this part of the book. We need to get it right for our readers. So, no backstory or flashbacks (and please no dream scene straight away), introduce your main character in a sitaution of conflict and make sure we hook the reader right from the start.

JJ

11 comments:

Chumplet said...

I find that if I go ahead and start off with a lot of backstory, I'll simply cut it off where the real story starts.

It helps me get to know my characters, and some of the information automatically filters through in later chapters anyway.

colbymarshall said...

I love it when I get that perfect first chapter that I really feel like is going to take me somewhere. Rare, but sometimes I get it right ;-)

Laurie Ashton said...

If the first sentence, the first paragraph, the first page, the first chapter, doesn't hook the reader, there's no hope that book will be bought or read. We've got to get it right. :)

Miss Lissy said...

I definately agree. I find it's best to always start with something that's going to startle your readers. Sprinkle the story with background here and there to leave them hungry for answers. Jodi Picoult does an excellent job of this in My Sister's Keeper, never revealing why Alexander Campbell needs a guide dog until the exact perfect moment.

Sassee B said...

I'm one of those readers that gets bored easily, so I try to write both for myself and other future readers. If I'm bored, they'll be bored. It's a good rule of thumb and has been useful to me so far! :)

Carolyn Yates said...

on miss lissy's post, there's also something to be said for giving some information straight up. otherwise, speaking as a reader, you get bored/frustrated with the book's refusal to explain itself, and by the time it finally does, you've stopped reading. there's no point planting the gun on the mantel in act one to shoot someone with in act three if it was hidden in a potted plant.

plaidearthworm said...

If a book doesn't grab me by the eyeballs in the first three pages, I put it down. When authors shove huge mountains of background into the beginning, it feels like homework! Fantasy novels, one of my fave genres, are especially bad for doing this. I'm tempted to print your blog post, and shove it into the pocket of every writer I meet at a conference. ;)

Sarah Heacox said...

Agreed! The opening has been the hardest part for me. I struggle to strike the balance between telling too much and telling nothing important.

Snowflake said...

I hate when I don't get the first sentence right and I tend to stay stuck all night on such a sentence and that can be annoying.

Laura said...

First chapter? I want to be seduced and intrigued by the very first line! And if I can't get past the entire first page, I wander off.

But I'm high maintenance that way....

:)

Anonymous said...

JJCooper, great article!

I especially like the paragraph about the backstory, flashbacks and dream scene chapter openings. It's funny, even as I read it, I was deciding that perhaps my current opening scene SHOULD be scrapped.

I'm glad I stopped into your blog. I've just decided...I'm going back to my original chapter opening. Skip the chatter, the protag intro can wait and on with some real drama. Thanks for helping me along...however indirectly it was. ;>) Oh! And congrats on the book! Any sneak peeks available?

Penny Manning from The AW Cooler.