Writing A Novel: First Chapters

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Hey everyone!  Wow, has it been a long time since I've posted!  Ugh.  Before I jump into the anatomy of a first chapter -- as promised in the last post for Writing A Novel: "Casting Call" -- I'll tell you why I have been absent. 
1) My computer crashed.  The hard drive broke, and it was only one year old.  Because the SD reader hadn't been working (I guess that was a sign that the drive was failing because it works now that the laptop's fixed) I hadn't saved my documents for a couple of months.  I write a lot so I lost a lot.  Yippee.  I got it fixed, though, and now I think I owe the repairman either my firstborn child or a spot in one of my future books...didn't get my files back, though. 
2) Our internet connection hasn't been working at all.  For the entire month of August.  We finally got that fixed...for now.

So with that all said and done, here I am.  Let's get started into the terrifying realm that is the first chapter of your book.

The anatomy of a first chapter, in my opinion, should be structured based on importance of matter. 
1) A great hook.  When you read a book, do you like endless information about the character's hometown, or do you like a fast-paced first few lines that make you say, "Whoa.  Where did that come from, and what happens next?!" 
I'll give you an example:
In my book Welcome Home, I was originally going to begin with a flashback to when Lucy was with her adoptive mother, Veronica Conily.  It simply described the day she left her mother's house (to put it lightly and not spoil the book, in case anyone ever reads it).  But as I began the stages of editing (four of them) I ended up getting pretty bored with the first chapter.  It took a lot for me to just scrape my eyes past the first chapter, so I knew I needed a change. 

In school, you may have read a lot about the importance of 'hooks', introductions to the story or essay that really grab the reader's attention.  What sounds better?  Lucy heaving her backpack onto her shoulders as she argues with her mother, or Lucy shattering a window, falling, bleeding, and landing on thorns as she escapes out of desperation?  I think I know the answer. 

Therefore, what you read in school is actually a hundred percent truthful.  Even if your story isn't action packed, there are still ways to begin the story that makes the reader want to continue.  Look at The Hobbit, for example.  J.R.R. Tolkien chose to simply describe his character and where he lived, but it's interesting to us because we've never heard of hobbits, and why do they live in holes in the ground?  In A Study In Scarlet by Sir Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes isn't introduced right off the bat: it's John Watson, describing the horrors that led him to meet and arrange living quarters with Sherlock Holmes at 221B Baker Street. 

Pick what you think works best and go with it.  You'll probably end up rewriting your first chapter many times before it's acceptable to you, but that goes hand in hand with the evolution of your story.  Make it great, make it suspenseful, make it curious, make it interesting.  

2) Meet the characters that are involved right off the bat.  Your main character, of course, should be described to a certain extent, but not wholly.  Don't give away everything the reader should know right away, otherwise they might have an idea of how the story is going to pan out.  Your character is afraid.  Why?  That's for the next chapter!  Your character hates so-and-so...but you'll wait until the middle of the book to learn why.  Your characters are at a funeral, but they're not unhappy.  Wait 'til you find out why...later.

See?  Instead of saying "Jolene sat down beside her colleague Henry, staring at the casket.  They'd taken the life of that kid, and they still had the guts to sit here amongst the grievers.  It almost didn't feel right, but the whole country's security had been at stake.", you say "Jolene sat down beside her colleague Henry and stared at the casket.  They were surrounded by so many mourners, and they sat emotionless, without even batting an eyelash.  Despite that, they knew why the people wept.", or something like that.  So -- you don't necessarily have to immediately introduce a conflict in your first chapter, but you do have to give the readers something to grab onto, so they want to learn more about the characters you're presenting.  Outside of the main character, you can introduce any other characters within the MC's close circle of friends or family; anyone they are in contact with on this certain day, the day that their story begins.  Don't be too concerned with introducing everyone right at once, or you'll bog your readers down. 

Okay -- let's review so far.  We have to have a good hook that draws readers in, we have to introduce the first batch of characters, letting the others fall in a timely manner, and we have to make sure that we don't give up the plot of the story all at once, keeping enough information at bay that the reader can't put the book down and has to keep on reading. Finally, here's the last thing you have to make sure to do when you're writing a first chapter:

3) End it on an interesting note.  You know you have to hit the ground running with the story, but you also have to keep running through, especially, the first few chapters.  This is how you get the books that make people say, "Oh, I was going to stop reading after this chapter, but I couldn't stop, and now it's three A.M. and I wish the second book in the series was already released!"  Again, you can't give off too much information early on, but give a piece of bait out to your readers.  Hint that the character feels something big approaching.  Their lives will never be the same, after all.  Say that the events you wrote about, or alluded to, in the first chapter happened right now, and the rest of the book is a flashback telling the reader how it all started two weeks ago, when the character was followed to the gas station by a strange person.  In doing this, you ensure that your readers remain engaged past the first couple of pages. 

When you're writing your first chapter, it's really hard.  It is, and it's okay if you struggle with it.  If you can't seem to get past your first chapter, try to write past it and come back to it later.  Chances are, you'll end up changing it to be even better once you have a good idea of how your story is actually going to go.  Don't give up on an idea just because you can't get the first few pages just right.  It took me an entire year to figure out just how I wanted my story's first chapter to go...don't lose hope, just go around it and come back to it later, like you might do on an exam. 

Now comes the fun part: the body of the book.  Hopefully, I should have the next installment, concerning the body of your book, posted sometime within the next week.  Until then, best of luck with your first chapters!  And save your files on tons of external memory sources.  Don't rely on computer hard drives.  Ugh.