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Oct 19, 2012

Why Does Your First Chapter Suck?

When all else fails, add pixie dust.
The first chapter is the door to the rest of the book. The first chapter is a fist of firsts: first sentence, first hook, first introduction to the cast of characters, first goal, first twist, first turn, and first cliffhanger.

Newbie writers know this, and try to stuff everything into the first chapter.

And it sucks big time.

So what went wrong?

The newbie scratches her head, and re-reads one or two famous books in her genre and discovers … HEY! What the heck? Mr. Famous Writer didn’t put in any of that stuff about Theme and Setting and Backstory That Makes You Love The Character, and so on. What’s going on?

There are four possibilities.
1. Mr. Famous Writer has banked on previous successes but made a hash of it this time, out of laziness.
2. Mr. Famous Writer’s book succeeded despite, not because of, the first chapter.
3. Mr. Famous Writer knows how to break the rules in a way that still works—and in a way that Newbie Writers would be better off not trying yet.
4. Mr. Famous Writer did in fact follow all (or most) the rules of a good first chapter and simply did it so well that one doesn’t notice.
Newbie Writers always want to believe (1) or (2). Sometimes, they’ll grudgingly grant (3). But almost always, the Correct Answer is (4). The first chapter of the famous book in fact does do exactly what a first chapter should, but so smoothly and subtly – or so blatantly and obviously – that somehow the Newbie Writer can’t believe it.

When I say, “Newbie Writer,” I mean, “Guilty as Charged.” I’ve been there, done that, and I’m trying to learn better. With that in mind, I’m going to be looking at the first chapters of several well-known books in my genre (fantasy), to see what the author did, and why it worked. It’s quite possible, in fact, inevitable, that not everything in the first chapter (or book) worked for every reader. It’s easy, but stupid, to be dismissive when something obviously did capture thousands, even millions of readers.

What works? What makes a first chapter into the kind of door that invites the reader further into the book?

I'd say there are five "Firsts" that must be introduced -- and must be awesome -- to add up to a great first chapter:

1. The First Sentence
2. The First Hook
3. The First Character
4. The First Exposition
5. The First Twist

How those five things are handled will determine (or, at any rate, should determine) the tone and structure of the rest of the book.

1 comment:

Ink in the Book said...

This is such a timely post. I'm int he midst of a writing clinic and about to enter a contest where this info will be a great asset. Thank you for sharing:)