WHAT DOES THE FIRST CHAPTER DO?
There’s talk about the first page and whether an agent will keep on reading if the first page kills the story. The same could be said for some readers. Then again, I’m not one that believes in that, necessarily. On the other hand, if I start reading, and the writing is terrible…say I can’t even get through the first paragraph, well…
This isn’t about that. By this point, we’re beyond that. Let’s say, you have the writing down, the first page is great, you’ve hooked the reader. What’re you going to do in the first chapter? What kind of groundwork are you going to lay for the rest of the story?
THE FIRST CHAPTER – THE START
I’m going into this discussion given that you may or may not have a prologue. The prologue, which I sometimes use, depending on the type of story, is the setup. Whether I choose to use one or not, Chapter 1, starts the main story, or should. Keep in mind that not all stories begin that way, but most do.
What does Chapter 1 do? What should it do?
The first chapter introduces the premise of the book. It sets the scene, it gets the ball rolling. There are several things that should happen. I bring this up because at my writer’s group meeting the other day, I read the first chapter of the third book in my Meleena’s Adventures series. My first chapter (I don’t use prologues in my fantasy series) was a bit lacking in certain things I didn’t see when I wrote it. It was one of those forest-through-the-trees moments that it took others to see.
INTRODUCE ONE OR MORE OF THE CHARACTERS
It goes without saying that Chapter 1 should introduce someone. This is where you should let the reader know who’s driving the story. Very often, especially with omniscient or multiple point of view stories, the first chapter might not introduce the main character at all. The author will start with some minor or one-off character. If it’s horror for instance, it will be the first victim. In a murder mystery, it will also be the first victim, or maybe even the killer. There’s nothing wrong with this. Why? Premise.
INTRODUCE THE PREMISE
Chapter 1 introduces the premise. This very important action scene should introduce the premise for the story. If the prologue hasn’t already done so, this is your chance. Regardless if the prologue is action, Chapter 1 should also be an action scene. It should introduce more of the premise for what is to follow. It should set up the rest, the foundation of the story.
KEEP BACKSTORY TO A MINIMUM
The last thing you want to do is bog your reader down with backstory and endless narration and exposition right off. If you make their eyes glaze over in the first few pages, they’re likely to put the book down and go to something else! Give out the minor details in small doses as the story moves along.
I was a bit guilty of this, at least my readers the other night thought so. If you have a series and are working on, say book three, each book should stand on their own. Don’t assume the reader has started with book one and knows what’s going on. When you start with Chapter 1, don’t lay down a bunch of stuff with no explanation and assume the reader already knows the background. If that reader makes it to the end of the chapter, they’re going to scratch their head and wonder if the whole book is like that. Would you put it down? I certainly would!
Once again, this returns to backstory. You want the reader to know what’s going on, but that doesn’t mean bog then down with details. Give a short introduction as if this is the first time they’ve ever read this series, but don’t overwhelm them with stuff right away, keeping in mind your fans that have read everything so far. By being brief, you not only satisfy the new readers, but you remind the old ones without boring them.
START WITH A BANG – COMPEL THEM TO GO TO CHATPER TWO
Of course, I say this about every chapter and scene. However, the first chapter sets the tone and the feel of the rest of the story. It also sets the pace. You have to rev up the reader and get them going. Don’t spark their interest and slap them to a halt before things even get fired up!
Chapter 1 gets you out of the gate and if you do it right, the reader will keep reading and reading and reading, right to the end.