This Business of Writing

How to Write Your Novel’s 1st Chapter

In How-to's, The Craft of Writing on March 18, 2010 at 7:56 am

by C. Patrick Schulze

To listen to a podcast of this blog article, click HERE.

We all know the first chapter of your book is the most critical in the novel. We also know within this initial chapter, the first paragraph is of utmost importance. And of your first paragraph, the first sentence is primary above all. Why is this, and if these things in your novel carry so much weight, how does an author insure he gets it right?

They “why” is simple. Book sales.

Have you ever seen someone in a store pull out a book, flip it open, read for a moment then set it back on the shelf? Truth be told, they do that much more often than not. So, how does an author get the buyer to say, “yes?” Of course your cover, your title and your blurbs all have power to help form the buyer’s decision, yet despite all these, before they buy they’ll read that first paragraph or two.

The worst part of this? They offer you three, maybe four seconds to capture their attention. That’s it. You’ve got mere seconds to convince them to pay you a royalty. And that is why you’ve got to grab them right away. It’s all about the sale, my friends.

So, once they flip open your novel, how is it you capture their curiosity?

One tool to consider is Point of View, or POV as it’s known. If you’re new to the craft of writing, give serious consideration to third-person point of view. You might contemplate this even if you’re not so new to the craft of writing. Third-person POV, where the author acts as narrator, can be considered a default Point of View, if you will. It’s a powerful Point of View and offers the writer much more versatility with his words. It’s easiest to write and most familiar to your reader.

Another tip is to get to setting right away. This creates that first important word picture and immerses the reader in your story at once. You need not get too descriptive, for this can bog down the action, but give them a fact or two to ground them in time and place. For example, in my current manuscript, “Born to be Brothers,” right away the reader sees a wiry man as he reins in his plow mule. Can you see how the mule and plow give you a hint of setting? The secret with this is to make the setting active. That is, have your character perform some action in relation to the setting.

You also might wish to employ some startling action in the first sentence or two. Give them a reason to raise an eyebrow as they peruse your first page. Be sure not to give them the entire picture all at once or their curiosity won’t compel them to take your novel home.

Another possibility is to open with a puzzle of sorts. You might have your hero look over something he doesn’t understand. Of course, the “something” must be integral to the storyline, but if you do this well, it may raise a question in the reader’s mind and encourage him to learn more.

You might attempt to create that perfect twist of words that captures their imagination. “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.” It’s tough to do, but quite effective.

You might introduce the reader to an intriguing character in context or perspective. Is he an outsider, an outlaw or an odd duck? Again, this just might spark the reader’s imagination.

Another potential opening could include a microcosm of your entire story. If you’re writing about a murder, begin with a murder. If your story revolves around a young girls fantasies, begin with a fantasy. This type of opening can bring your reader into focus fast.

You can also attempt to fascinate or intrigue the reader with an interesting character. Imagine an opening sentence that shows a female detective thrashing an ex-con. Might your reader want to know more about her? If you use this tactic, focus on the character’s emotional state during the scene and not their physical description. For more on how to create effective characters, consider THIS blog article.

Maybe you could introduce your intriguing character in context. Identify their personality. Is he an outsider, an outlaw or an odd duck? Again, the secret here is to focus on the emotional aspects of your character.

One way to draw a reader into your novel is to establish a powerful mood. Even Snoopy of “Peanuts” fame understood this. He always stated his stories with, “It was a dark and stormy night.” Don’t use that line, but you get the idea. An evocative atmosphere from the very beginning may just work for you, if fits your story.

Now I have a question for you. What remarkable openings have your written or read that might work for the readers of this blog?

As always, you know I wish you only best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze

Author of the emerging novel, “Born to be Brothers.”

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  1. Another book that explains how to write a first chapter in a lot of detail is called “Hooked” by Les Edgerton. He also explains about how to introduce “story-level” problems. It’s a great read!

    • Thanks for the tip, Kate. I’ll try to include it in my next article on the subject.

      Just for grins, Kate is also the heroine in my up and coming novel, “Born to be Brothers.”

      Thanks for your comment.

      Patrick

  2. You’ve hit my blog topic for tomorrow! I’ll be showing a step by step of how I got the first draft of Chapter 1 for my new manuscript on the page.

    • Sorry, Terry. Didn’t mean to steal your thunder. However, if nothing else, you’ve got a link for your post now, don’t you?

      (Who says I’m afraid of shameless promotion?)

      Thanks for taking your time to read and comment.

      Patrick

  3. Interesting. I like all the different approaches and perspectives you give here. For more perspective, check out my blog for fiction writers at http://writebig.wordpress.com/

    • Thanks for taking your time to read this, Brayden. I’ll see if I can’t link to your blog via an article.
      Anything specific you’d like to me to write about that might work well with your blog?

      Patrick

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