It’s no secret that writing the first chapter of your novel is one of the most, if not the most, nerve-wracking mind-boggling moderately terrifying bits of the whole writing process. It is the first thing that you write and is expected to be the best really, or else your novel is under the danger of falling into the depths of publishing hell. In this world short attention spans that are getting shorter by the minute, the first page (or paragraph or line) is the key to locking the interest of both your publisher and reader.
The infamous first chapter, however, is not as difficult to pen down as it may seem. This article describes a few simple guidelines that may prove helpful if you are stuck in the beginning of your book.
1. Begin in the Middle
Ancient Greek poetry has taught us the value of in medias res. Literally, it means “into the middle of things” and refers to the Homeric technique of beginning the narration in the middle of an action rather than from the very beginning of it. Homer’s Iliad begins in the 10th year of the Greek-Trojan War, which was also prophesized to be the game-changing year, and the events leading up to the war are only alluded to as and when necessary.
Similarly, beginning your story at a point of change preferably with an action rather than a backstory immediately hooks the reader to your story. Dan Brown begins The Da Vinci Code with a prologue describing a murder followed by the first chapter in which the protagonist, an art history professor, is consulted to help solve the murder after being woken up in the middle of the night.
Jumping right into the thick of things, by providing the readers only as much information as required to adequately understand it, raises just the right amount of questions to keep them hooked: Why was Dead Person A murdered? Who did this to him? How is our protagonist related to all this?
2. The Showstopping First Line
Robert Langdon awoke slowly. A telephone was ringing in the darkness – a tiny unfamiliar ring. He fumbled for the bedside lamp and turned it on. Squinting at his surroundings he saw plush Renaissance bedroom with Louis XVI furniture hand-frescoed walls, and a colossal mahogany four-poster bed.
Now, how many times have you woken up in the middle of the night with a phone call while sleeping in a “plush Renaissance bedroom” with all the fine things in it? The setting is unusual, and so is the event which causes sufficient intrigue in the mind of the reader to make him or her turn the page.
3. Setting the Tone
The first chapter introduces the narrative voice of your novel along with the protagonist. By its end, the reader should have formed a connection with at least one of the primary characters should have become comfortable with the tone and the pace of the book. The settings that you define in this chapter should likely remain constant throughout the book. In the very first chapter of The Da Vinci Code, we are informed – none too directly – that Robert Langdon teaches art history at Harvard, specializes in symbolism, and is a little famous, attractive and knowledgeable man with a sharp quick thinking mind. This justifies the fact the third person narration is littered with descriptions of art and architecture. Similarly, To Kill a Mockingbird puts one in the head of the six-year-old Jill with her seemingly (but not quite) disconnected descriptions of incidences and family history which are interspersed with blunt observations of the society around her. In the first line itself she mentions that she will describe how her brother broke his arm, and the entire novel with all its crucial themes does actually lead up to the answer of that question.
4. Limit the Information
While setting the mood and introducing the characters are important, it is easy to get carried away with all the details and write pages and pages of description and backstory. It is imperative to give only as much information as essential to make sense of the events of the first chapter. In some ways, it is almost like a trailer of the book, it should introduce and familiarize but not give away the story altogether. The backstories and other details can wait, and instead be given later when a relevant situation arises or as a twist.
5. The Cliffhanger
Once you have grabbed the attention of your readers, given them something within the novel to connect with and raised certain questions in their heads, it’s time to end your first chapter. This is where the cliffhanger ending steps in. The questions and the intrigue that has been created will be satisfied in the next chapters. At this moment, the end of the chapter must leave your reader with a big neon sign of “What will happen next?” in front of their eyes. Ending your first chapter in cliffhanger can immediately boost the interest one has in the story.
6. Bonus Tip: Spontaneity
Writing the first chapter can seem like a daunting task after all this. Thus, a good way to start is to simply start writing it without bothering to edit until much later. Spontaneity can produce surprising results. Even otherwise, a rough first chapter when one is not aiming to be perfect gives it a structure that can edited and perfected later. In fact, few authors alter their initial chapters after they have completed the whole book.
A basic outline of the story also makes it easier to write its beginning. Strong characters and fleshed out storylines usually add to the self-explanatory element of a good first chapter and the whole novel in general.
Eventually, it all boils down to your process, for the best way to write is to sit in your comfort corner, pick up a pen and a notebook (or your laptop) and get on with it.