Although lots of writers tend to fear the muddling through the middle, first chapters (and beginnings in general) can be just as daunting. You might find yourself asking, “Where do I start? What is the best part of my story to use as my first chapter?”
You’re not alone in this internal debate. In fact, I recently had one of my creative writing students ask about this very issue. She worried that, “I’ve read and scrapped and rewritten tons of beginning chapters, and I just can’t decide what one works best!”
The truth all us writers have doubted the perfect place to start our book, but we need to be careful not to allow this fear to prevent us from starting our novels. Chances are you’ll end up rewriting some of your beginning anyway, so don’t let dread of the revision process hold you back.
But if you are fighting that first-pages-fear, I’m hoping this column can give you some tips on how to write engaging beginnings that will juice your writing energy and engage future readers, agents, editors, and publishers. Tips like the five promises you make to a reader in chapter one, which I will cover in detail along with some additional writing pointers in this column.
How Can I Write a Strong First Chapter?
Most books start with intriguing first chapters that make several promises in chapter one.Some that come to mind are Scout’s endearing voice in To Kill a Mockingbird or the mysterious event or disturbance in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and its colorful characters like Hagrid, Professor McGonagall and Albus Dumbledore leaving baby-Potter on the front doorsteps of the Dursley’s house. Others still might be the problem and the unique world James Dashner introduced with the intense opening scene in The Maze Runner.
Bottom line is, we could discuss hundreds of opening chapters that capture these five promises. For today’s discussion, however, I’d like to focus on the beginning of one of my young adult favorites, Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games.
You can read the first chapters here.
The First Line
The opening pages, especially the first line of your book, can make or break a story’s success. This is your chance to grab readers, editors, and publishers, so don’t waste time with paragraphs that take away from the voice, events, characters, problem, and world of your story. How can we do this? With one word – disturbance.
Consider these opening lines in The Hunger Games.
When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.
What’s the reader feeling at this point? Probably a sense of darkness and danger. We are promised a disturbance. What is this reaping? And why would a young child long for their mother, awoken from nightmares, on the day of the this event?
What’s important to consider at this point is what causes a disturbance? A disturbance is anything that is a change or threat of change to the character’s ordinary world.
Act one always takes place in the character’s ordinary world (or world that they are used to). The disturbance promises movement that will propel that character into act two, the settings of the “unordinary world,” where a character will face obstacles that will change her forever.
Some other ways to write killer first lines might include:
- Generating immediate tension
- Starting with dialogue that grabs a reader’s immediate attention
A main reason I chose The Hunger Games to discuss is because lots of agents will tell you, “don’t start with the morning routine!” But wait? Aren’t these first pages following Katniss and her day-to-day-life in District 12 her routine?
Yes, but with a twist.
In The Hunger Games, Katniss gets up and finds Prim gone, she goes hunting, meets Gale, travels to the black market, comes across Madge and the Mayor. It’s true, this is more of a morning routine for Katniss, but her world is far different than the world you or I are familiar with, and so Collins uses Katniss’s routine to establish the dark setting, the immediate danger that looms beyond the woods, and the desperate, primal desires rampant throughout District 12 such as fear of death, hunger, and protection of a loved one.
Yet, despite the ordinary routine of Katniss, readers know this is not a normal day. This is the day of the reaping, which is exactly what we get by roughly page eight, when Gale and Katniss try to joke about the odds being, “ever in your favor.”
And so we have the disturbance again. What could happen by the end of the day is ever present and pressing in the back of Katniss’s mind. She cannot save her sister Prim if her name is drawn…but the chances are low, she thinks, in an attempt to comfort her consciousness.
A failed thought, which we see after the worst disturbance that could possibly happen to Katniss does happen by the end of the first chapter…It’s Primrose Everdeen.
What Are Some Disturbances You Might Use to Start Your Novel?
Taken from James Scott Bell’s list in his book Plot and Structure, here are some common disturbances you might like to use to start your novel:
- The Lead gets a phone call in the middle of the night.
- The Lead gets a letter with some intriguing news.
- The boss calls the Lead into his office.
- A child is taken to the hospital.
- A car breaks down in a deserted town.
- The Lead wins the lottery.
- The Lead witnesses an accident or murder.
- The Leader’s wife (or husband) has left, leaving a note.
How do you create a disturbance or change with your first line? Your first pages? Do you include some sort of unanswered secret in your first chapter? Do you describe character and setting without dragging?
I’d love to hear about any techniques you like to remember when writing your first pages! And if you found this article interesting, please share this article using the hashtag “LetsTalkBooks” to continue the discussion!
Also, if you found this article helpful, you might want to check out the additional blogs about when to use prologues and how much backstory to include in the opening pages.
Abigail K. Perry is a mainstream fiction writer living in Massachusetts where she teaches creative writing and film production to grades 9-12. She loves reading, studying films, researching stories that explore the big questions of life, snuggling with her puppy, and taking every writing course she can, especially online writing workshops at Writer’s Digest University.
Additionally, Abigail received a B.S. in TV, Radio, and Film from Syracuse University (S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications) and her Master’s in Education from Endicott College. She gained invaluable insight on the entertainment and publishing industries, working as a creative production intern for Overbrook Entertainment and a marketing and sales intern for Charlesbridge Publishing. Both were tremendous influences on her passion to write mainstream fiction.