Getting the First Chapter Right

last updated: 12 September 2017 (approximate reading time: 6 minutes; 1265 words)

In August 2017, I posted a first chapter from a possible future book. You can read that chapter by following this link.

For me, when I begin a book, the chapter that takes longest to write is the first chapter. Once I’ve got that foundation right, I can build the book from there. But until that bedrock is solid, all I’ve really got is a bunch of ideas that might become a book, might become scenes in any number of books, or more likely, will get thrown away in favor of a better idea.

This post looks at some of my considerations and the decisions I made when writing the first chapter of my (as yet unpublished) novel which will be set in the mid 18th century. I have looked more broadly at first scenes/chapters in my post First Scene to Hook the Reader.

The Function of the First Chapter

One of the reasons the first chapter takes a while is that I’m trying to balance two contradictory activities:

  • On one hand, I have to draw the reader in.
  • But on the other hand, as an author, when I sit down to write the first chapter, this is where I have to make decisions about what story I’m actually telling. Making decisions means throwing things away.

Let me elaborate…

Drawing In the Reader

Chapter one is the reader’s way into a story. To engage the reader—to draw in the reader—there are several elements that need to be brought into play.

The first element is a character who interests the reader. The character doesn’t necessarily need to be likeable, but they need to offer the reader a reason to spend time with them. Equally, the character doesn’t need to be the main antagonist/protagonist—they simply need to be someone to take the reader by the hand and drag them into the story.

The second element is a situation that intrigues the reader. The reader doesn’t need all of the details of the situation; just enough to arouse their curiosity.

The third element is something at stake. The reader needs to understand at an instinctive level that something in the situation matters to at least one of the characters, even if the reader does not fully understand (yet) the consequences of those stakes. If the reader understands that something matters to a character, and that character interests them, then they will want to know more. In short, they’ll want to know what happens next.

But That’s Not Enough

Simply giving the reader a character or two, a situation, and setting out the stakes isn’t enough. For the reader, chapter one is the frame that sets the expectations for the book, and establishes the deal between reader and writer. For the reader to the author: I’ll give you my time and trust you to take me somewhere. For the author to the reader: I’ll give you an experience that you’ll enjoy.

Chapter one is a negotiation. The author gives a hint of the journey; just enough, but not too much. The reader wants to know that there’s a story, but doesn’t want to be told the ending on page one.

At the end of the first chapter, the deal between reader and writer should be agreed, but it’s always good to give the reader an incentive to turn to chapter two.

Making Decisions

For me, the author, a book (literally) starts from a blank page (…well, a blank screen). My options are limitless. This freedom is good, but a reader doesn’t want to hear everything that is rattling around inside my head: a reader wants to hear a very specific story, and a story told well.

The reader wants to read about a series of events, with that series of events recounted in precisely the right order such that the book literally takes the reader on a journey.

As the author, I have to decide what journey I want to take the reader on. That decision made, I then deal with the consequences. In other words, I need to determine:

  • which characters to include—and which characters to exclude
  • which events to include—and which events to exclude
  • the locations where the action occurs—and which locations are irrelevant
  • which events happen and which characters are present “on screen”—and which are simply recounted

The decisions made in the first chapter will impact the rest of the book since each decision often means a cut; something has to be discarded.

Cutting hurts, but cutting is good for a novel. It brings clarity and focus (assuming the right things have been cut) and it gives a chance to make sure the ending isn’t given away in the first few lines.

But cutting also helps drag the reader into the second chapter.

Chapter Two

Once I’ve piqued their interest, I can’t blithely take the reader for granted. I need to create a strong motivation for the reader to move from chapter one to chapter two.

And the simple way to encourage the reader to keep reading is to tell them that there’s something they don’t know while implying the answer is on the next page. So, for instance, if a character says: “I’ll tell you who the murderer is if you meet me on the heath at midnight…” then the reader might turn the page to find who the murderer is (and also to deal with the minor puzzle of why the character couldn’t say now…but that’s another issue).

I don’t like being so crude. I prefer subtlety and for the reader to figure the missing details on their own. My readers are bright—they don’t need signposts telling them what’s missing. However, I do need to make sure I miss details which will result in questions in the reader’s mind, encouraging them to turn the page in order to find out more.

What Was Left Out?

There were many shortcomings with the chapter that I sent out last month, but one thing I was quite pleased with was how much I left out. These intentional omissions left many questions posed, but unanswered.

Here’s a quick list of the obvious issues that the first chapter raises but does not address:

  • Was Kitty Wilson murdered?
  • If she was murdered, who murdered her and why? Was the murder connected with her memoirs?
  • Why is the former master concerned about the death?
  • Why did the former master send for his ex-employee?
  • What has happened to Kitty Wilson’s book, her notes, and any other lists of names she may have had?
  • How many people are on that list and what do they have at stake if their dalliance with Kitty becomes public?

There’s also the question of why the servant left the master’s employ, the servant’s current employment, the status of the master, and the relationship between the two men, but these issues are of less immediate issue for the reader and are less consequential for the story.

You will also see that having so many questions gives me a lot of flexibility. I can take the story in many directions (maybe even several directions).

Finishing Chapter One

The chapter still needs a lot of work, but—for me—it’s a good starting point with the basics in place:

  • a character—the former servant
  • a situation—the dead body
  • and something is clearly at stake with a compromising list of names.

In addition, there are lots of questions that need answering.

Hopefully this will pull people into the story, but unfortunately, you and I are both going to have to wait until the book is written before we can decide whether I’ve succeeded. 

Filed under

Category: writing
Tags: historical series   first scene