Today’s post is a gift from author Lauren Clark, whose book, Dancing Naked in Dixie, I reviewed earlier this week. The advice she offers here is the kind of “thank you” we writers can all appreciate.
If you’re a writer … in any stage of the game … you’ve likely stressed out about that ominous and all-important first chapter. It’s easy to get stuck on page one, but these tips should help get you thinking and planning your way through it. With some effort, you’ll soon be on your way to chapter two, then three, and beyond.
1. Open with action – Have your character doing something that matters (not drinking tea, taking a shower, or doing the dishes!)
2. What’s the problem? – Your hero or heroine should have a dilemma right away. It can be something that he or she created, an issue that someone else incites (revenge, grief, hate. love, obsession, etc.) an accident, or even a natural disaster.
3. Why should I care? – The main character’s problem should matter, in a small sense or a large one. The hero doesn’t have to be saving the world, but the crisis or issue at hand should be enough to upset the balance of life as he or she knows it.
4. Inject some empathy – Make certain that you show your character (on the premise that your hero is not a serial killer) demonstrates caring for others. It doesn’t have to be rescuing a baby from a burning building, but even a small act of kindness goes a long way with readers identifying with your protagonist.
5. Don’t overload the chapter with secondary characters – When you meet someone new, it’s tough enough to remember that person’s name. Don’t throw a dozen characters at your reader right away. It’s too confusing.
6. Light on the description – Don’t weigh the story down with too many details about the setting, every blade of grass, or the character’s eye color – there’s plenty of time for that later.
7. Skip the back story – Readers don’t need to know everything about the character right away. Save the details for why and how for at least a few more chapters — and later in the story if you can manage it. Remember, offer ‘crumbs’ along the way…don’t throw down the entire loaf of bread!
8. This is my personal preference, but keep the first chapter between five and ten pages (double-spaced in a Word document). Much more than that and you chance losing a reader.
9. Leave the reader hanging at the end of the chapter. Don’t explain everything. Ask a question. Pose another dilemma. Put someone in danger. Give the reader a reason to turn the page and go to chapter two.
10. Put chapter one away for a day or two. Get it back out, re-read it. Make notes, do some light revisions. Let a trusted friend read it. Let a book-loving acquaintance read it. Make more notes, do more revisions as needed. IMPORTANT: Go on to chapter two. Write the rest of the manuscript. Then, Go back to # 1 on this list and double-check that you’ve included everything needed for that stellar first chapter.
Looking for examples of stellar first chapters? Pick up a few of your favorite books. Try answering the questions above using those novels. What makes them special?
Lauren Clark is the author of Stay Tuned and Dancing Naked in Dixie. She writes contemporary novels set in the Deep South; stories sprinkled with sunshine, suspense, and secrets.
A former TV news anchor, Lauren adores flavored coffee, local bookstores, and anywhere she can stick her toes in the sand. Her big loves are her family, paying it forward, and true-blue friends. Check out her website at www.laurenclarkbooks.com.
Smart, Sassy Fiction with a Southern Twist