Monday, December 8, 2014

How to Craft The Perfect First Chapter - Question from a reader.

I have a question.
Is there a magic formula to writing the "perfect" first chapter?
I'm editing...again. Wrote the synopsis. The story is good --has potential. But I'm not sure the opening pops. I just keep writing it and re-writing it, over and over again, trying to make it better. Hoping for great. Help!
Is there a formula for writing a terrific first chapter that does its job of making the rest of book compelling to read but does not overload; such as so much percent back story, so much percent hints of the future, so much percent character development, so much current action, etc.
Or am I dreaming?
I know you must have discussed this before, but is there a chance for a review?

I have to say, I do love it when an author asks a question that is so easy to answer.


Well, I guess my work is done for the day...

I guess I can't do that so let me go on.

First of all, as I have stressed here over and over again, there is no formula for anything we do in writing. Everything we do, each plot, each character, each conflict, all are created on a case by case basis. In other words, what works for one story or one author is not going to always work for someone else. 

As for the first chapter, the best advice I can give is to turn the story around and think about it as a reader, and not as a writer. From the way you have framed the question, it is clear you aren't thinking that way. If you started into this story because you picked the book up in a book store, ask yourself if you would keep reading? Are you intrigued enough to want to keep going.

Now, I do find that a lot of writers get confused with the idea of "being intrigued" and "I have some questions to be answered." We don't want all of the answers given to us in the beginning, but we don't want to turn pages in the book just to "figure out what is going on." We want to turn pages because you have drawn us in.

If you think about academic and professional writing, we have the basic structure of introduction, body and conclusion. The into is the infamous "hook" It is the attention getter! It is the way we draw the reader into wanting to get to the thesis and main idea of the paper found in the body of the paper. The same goes for writing a story. 

You ask about percentages of information in the opening chapter - such as so much percent back story, so much percent hints of the future, so much percent character development, so much current action, etc. Let's consider each of these.

If you unload a bunch of back story, the problem is the reader doesn't have a context to fit that back story to. Now they are left with information to hold on to until the time comes for them to use it. I am a firm believer of giving out that back story on a "need to know basis". If the character doesn't need it at that time, then the reader probably doesn't either. 

As far as the hints to the future, we do need to see who the character is and where they are heading to, but even then, we don't want too much. Those opening scenes are designed to hint at the GMC of the protagonist. If you think about the start of Harry Potter, we get a hint of who he is as a baby and that there will clearly be a great conflict with "You know who" later in the book. We also can see that he is being placed at a house that might have questions, as well as see that "he will have a lot to learn." We don't really get much in the way of back story, but we are "intrigued".

As far as the current action, the thing we always stress is we want movement. It doesn't have to be the action of the central conflict, but we need things moving. Again, this is why that information dump of back story doesn't always work well in the beginning. I would also add that dumping them in the middle of the central conflict leaves the reader with wondering who these people are. 

I think the point to stress here is to just read it as a reader. What will work best for your story? Yes, the opening pages are beyond crucial. These are what the editors and agents read. These are the pages that your readers decide if they will continue or not. They have to be "golden". But as far as a formula goes, there just isn't one.

1 comment:

  1. Thank-you for your reply.
    Do I like your answer? No.
    Do I understand it? Yes.
    Did it make me think? Oh, yes...!

    I'm still a little worried about getting this first chapter right, but looking at it from this new perspective (as a reader) has really upped my energy and enthusiasm to try again. Possibilities and the prospect of actually finishing the story are appearing.
    I really do appreciate you taking the time to give such thorough answers and helpful advice.
    Merry Christmas, Kate M.