9/14/12

Ten Tips for a Stellar First Chapter



Today's guest post is by my friend Lauren Clark. Lauren 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.




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. Keep the first chapter between five and ten pages (My personal preference) 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?

Leave your answer in the Comments!


7 comments:

  1. This is excellent advice. Though I do love a story with rich description, even I don't like it when authors overdo it.

    By the way, I love your title, Dancing Naked in Dixie. How could I resist a book with a title that good?!

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    1. Heather I am soooo glad:). The title has attracted definite attention!

      xx, Lauren

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  2. Great tips! I like reading them and thinking about my novel and saying, "check." and "check." Thanks for the reminders! The craft is what counts!

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    1. That's awesome Kasie-- I just got my first revision letter back and apparently I did NOT follow these steps! But, I now know how!! It's really exciting!

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    2. Kasie! Thank you for the sweet comment! First chapters are so important and I am still learning, too! Always!!

      Laura....at least there's feedback, right? Something to work on. Just take a deep breath and jump bank in,,,, !!

      xx Lauren

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  3. This is the best bit of practical advice I've seen for ages! Writing isn't just about pouring out your purple prose it's a craft and we can all hone it a little further with every book we write. You can have the best idea in the world but if you don't keep the reader wanting to read on it won't matter.

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  4. Really good advice. It's not much of an exaggeration to say I almost break out in cold sweat worrying about how good the first chapter is. And whether or not I should just scrap it.

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