Thursday, September 28, 2017

3 Must Haves for Chapter One

Most writers know the basics about what should go in their first chapter. Obviously, you want to introduce your main character and give your readers a little background about your story. But, exactly what should happen in chapter one is something I think a lot of writer's struggle with. So, here are three tips to writing that first chapter.

Must Have's for Chapter One:

1. A hook or question to be answered later - You need some kind of mystery, something that puts a question in your reader's head to make them keep reading in search of the answer. Don't start your book with long exposition and backstory. Do, find an interesting moment for your opening scene and sprinkle in backstory as you go.

In the first chapter of Shatter Me we learn that Juliette has been locked away in a cell, but Tahereh Mafi leaves why as an open question for her readers to wonder about.

2. A moment that makes your main character like-able - Have your character do something that makes your readers want to root for them. This is sometimes called the "save the cat" moment. This moment, whatever it is, gives your reader a reason to care about your main character and want to go on a journey with them. This can be a small moment or something major, but it's an important moment. If your reader doesn't care about your characters they have to reason to keep reading.

Having a like-able moment is especially important if you have a character that is otherwise unlikable. If your main character does something sympathetic in chapter one, your reader will have an easier time forgiving them for things they may do later on or looking past other unlikable traits.

In Obsidian by Jennifer Armentrout we quickly discover a number of reasons to feel sympathetic toward Katy. On page one its revealed that Katy's father has recently passed away and she's just moved to a nowhere town. But, the moment that really made me care for Katy was when she saw her mom making eggs (and not doing a great job at it). Despite the fact that she clearly didn't want to move, and that she thought the eggs looked gross, she ate them knowing it would make her mom feel better. It was a small moment that showed she cared about her mom and for that reason I wanted to root for her.

In Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver, we're given a lot of reasons not to like the main character, Sam. But, the book opens with her death and Sam thinking back on some things that she seems to feel guilty about. This allowed Oliver to build some sympathy for Sam allowing for readers to be willing to watch her do some mean things throughout the book as she learned to be a better person. This isn't as great of a like-able moment as Katy's from Obsidian because dying is something that happened to Sam, where in Obsidian Katy chose to eat the eggs, but it still worked. Your like-able moment will be stronger if your character actively makes a choice to do something your reader will sympathize with.

3. Description to set the scene - Let your reader know when and where they are. Your reader is being introduced to your book's world in chapter one, so be sure to give them enough details to picture it. Poor descriptions can leave your reader feeling confused or irritated that something wasn't as they imagined it. This is especially important for books that aren't set in a conventional modern day world.

In The Selection, Kiera Cass does a good job setting the scene for America's dystopian world. You know by the fist paragraph that America's family has had a hard time, by the first page that she feels crowded in her own home, and by the end of the first chapter you have a basic understanding of the caste system and that while America's world looks a lot like our own there are some big differences in her society.

For me, the best first chapters have all three of these "must-have's". Only including one or two can leave you with a lack-luster first chapter. Big Little Lies, for example, opens with a flash-forward scene showing a glimpse of the book's dramatic conclusion. It meets "must-have" number one, by opening with an interesting scene that leaves the reader with a question to be answered, and it meets "must-have" number three with some nice scene building. But because the POV is not that of one of the main characters it's unable to meet "must-have" number two and leaves the reader unable to connect with any of the main characters. This was one of my least favorite first chapters.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like: 5 Reasons Readers Put Books Down

What books do you think had the best or worst first chapters?

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