Once Upon a Time: Writing Chapter One

Beginnings are hard. The only thing harder is middles and ends. And because my mind tends to scattershot when faced with a blank page, I like to have rules. Chapter One rules, if you will. I’ve collected these guidelines from a variety of sources—books on writing, critique partners, conferences, blogs… Please don’t make me source them.

1. Start in the middle.

Drop me right into the action, no waking up, no looking in the mirror bemoaning life, looks and waning popularity, and absolutely no dreaming. I want to be there right before the anvil falls, so to speak. Something I’ve done in the past, is to write my entire opening scene, then erase the first half. Make it like a party, arrive late and in a tight red dress (or an ascot, feather boa, etc.)

2. Avoid talking heads.

Continuing with the party analogy, what happens when everyone introduces themselves to you at once? A. You forget their names almost immediately and B. You have no idea who’s who. Introduce characters in order of importance and keep your descriptions succinct and meaningful.

3. Make me care.

If the reader doesn’t care about the character, they don’t care about their problems. That said, don’t give the reader wet toast either. Wow em with character. Also, flaws are sexy.

4. Show don’t tell.

This is the writer’s mantra, but in addition, I will also say, save the info dump for chapter two. Give the reader a few pages to live your character’s life in the present before visiting the past. Pretend you are a playwright and you don’t have a scrim to flashback.

5. Reel me in.

You can’t catch a fish without a hook and your first chapter should have a few. Cultivate a mystique. Like a first date, you can hint at your OCD compulsion to scrub the bathroom grout with bleach and a toothbrush, but don’t go into too much detail. Let the reader draw their own conclusions about why your character acts the way she does. It’s okay to wonder.

6. Conflict.

You don’t have a story without conflict. Even if it’s not spelled out in your first chapter, at least hint at it. Internal conflict as well as external.

7. Go out with a bang.

Similar to the way you entered the party, exit Chapter One in the same fashion. Something explosive, intriguing, fantastical. Something that makes the reader want to turn the page and ask—what happens next?!

Is this asking a lot? YES! But a great first chapter will not only grab the attention of an agent or editor, it will give the reader confidence that you can pull this thing off. 300 pages is a big commitment for a reader to make. Let them know that you’re in the driver’s seat and you know where this ride is going.

Got some rules of your own? Or are you a rule breaker? Share em with the class.

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