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First chapters that keep’em coming back for more

March 15, 2012

As I mentioned in my last post, I recently attended SleuthFest, the annual mystery writer’s conference sponsored by the Florida Chapter of Mystery Writers of America. One of the workshops I presented, along with fellow author Sharon Potts, was called “Writing to Avoid Rejection.” We focused our presentation on first chapters. If you’re lucky enough to have an agent and/or editor ask to see some pages, your first chapter must keep that agent or editor’s attention and leave him wanting more. Plan to self-publish? Substitute “reader” for “agent or editor” and your goal remains the same. You might have a great idea, an exciting plot, an interesting cast of characters, a unique setting, and a totally killer ending, but your reader will never know about any of that unless you keep him reading.

So how do you do that? To some extent, writing is like a recipe. We can all agree that certain basic ingredients are necessary to bake a cake, but the end result will be different for different bakers. Some will add new and unusual ingredients, some will make substitutions, some will change the measurements. All of them hope the end result is delicious.

The following is a list of questions Sharon and I created for writers to consider when reviewing a first chapter. The answers will help you determine whether you’ve created a delicious treat that leaves a reader hungering for more, or whether your creation might need to spend a bit more time in the oven.

  • Does the first sentence hook the reader?
  • Have you given the reader something that makes him want to keep reading after the opening scene?
  • Do you, as the writer, know the problem that will be resolved by the end of the book, and does the first chapter begin to identify or set that up? A first chapter doesn’t have to identify the main conflict, but what happens in Chapter One should somehow be important to it.
  • Do you, as the writer, know what the protagonist wants (both emotionally and in terms of the plot)? How are these goals set up or impacted by what takes place in Chapter One? Again, the reader doesn’t necessarily have to know the answer to these questions by the end of the chapter, but you, as the writer, should.
  • Is there action? (This doesn’t necessarily mean “action thriller” type action, but rather, forward movement.)
  • Does the opening chapter reflect the “DNA” of the rest of the book? Is it consistent with style, tone, and type of book?
  • Is the POV character’s “voice” consistent with that character, even in third person?
  • Is he/she likable? Your main character will have faults (or should have), but you’ll want your reader to like your protagonist enough to want to follow his story.
  • Does the story begin at the right point (when things have been set into motion by what is sometimes referred to as ‘the inciting incident’), or is there too much set up and back story?
  • Is there too much information in Chapter One that can better be dribbled in later in the book? Your first chapter should have key information without giving everything away or confusing the reader.
  • Are there too many characters introduced at once?
  • Are there too many distracting flashbacks?
  • Are all senses addressed—see, touch, smell, hear, taste?
  • Does the reader know where the story takes place (in a general sense, at least)?

Remember, these are considerations, not rules. Think about them, but don’t let them constrain your creativity. In fact, don’t even look at this list when you sit down to write your first chapter. Come back to it after you have completed a draft of your novel, when you have a better sense of your characters (especially your protagonist) and their goals. Until then, just write, have fun, experiment. Most of all, don’t be afraid to try some new ingredients.

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Julie Compton is the internationally published author of two novels, Tell No Lies and Rescuing Olivia, both from St. Martin’s Minotaur. She can be reached at julie@julie-compton.com.

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5 Comments
  1. March 15, 2012 5:49 am

    Julie: This is a thorough list or practical and pertinent ideas. One of the suggestions that grabbed my attention was to complete the first draft and then, refer to the guidelines. This prevents a formulaic, stick-to-the-recipe stiffness while still providing a throrough rubric for improvement. Great post. Thanks for your insight.

  2. Chris Hamilton permalink
    March 15, 2012 6:10 am

    The senses is a good question, and one I too often skip over. Beauty!

  3. Julie Compton permalink
    March 15, 2012 11:15 am

    Gayle, yes, formulaic is exactly what you want to avoid, right? When Sharon and I were discussing the list, one of my concerns was that writers would use it in a sort of “paint by numbers” approach, and that’s why we tried to make clear that the list is something to use AFTER you’ve written the book, as part of your overall revision process. If a chapter is written well, I think most if not all of the answers to these questions will be found somewhere in the chapter, yet they will be so subtle that a reader won’t even consciously realize it. I think of THE BOOK THIEF by Markus Zusak. The first chapter of that novel is so different than anything I’ve ever read (indeed, the whole book is), and I wouldn’t have thought the author necessarily answered all of the questions posed in the above list, yet when I reread it to analyze it with the list in mind, I realized he did. But he did so in a very fresh, unique way. He used the “ingredients” in a way no one ever had before and made the recipe for a novel his own.
    Chris, I’m the same. I often have to remind myself to think about the various senses, and to use some of them that we often forget about when writing (taste and smell, in particular).

    Julie

  4. March 15, 2012 11:34 am

    The amazing benefits of visualization in achieving expertise, healing and stress reduction are well established. It’s an easy step to recognize that the more effectively our writing evokes every sense, the richer the visualization it creates. It then resonates not only in the mind’s eye but in each of the min-senses.

  5. March 15, 2012 11:35 am

    “Mind-senses”

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