Talk about a tough gig. The first chapter has to grab your reader by the ears and hold them down while proving that you the author are trustworthy and can pull off a story.
When I’m reading, I usually know by the end of the first paragraph if I’m interested in continuing. By the bottom of the page, I have made my decision. Sloppy or amateurish writing, stale characters, and tired turns of phrase shut me down. If I don’t sense the author’s credibility immediately, I’m out of there—and on to something else. I want to read someone I can learn from!
That’s just me, a steady reader. Imagine an agent or editor who could (and probably does) receive over a hundred submissions a day. All the more important to make the first page and chapter sing.
Consider, too, the shopping habits of modern readers. Online bookstores offer samples, so it’s easier than ever for readers to try before they buy. What samples do they read? Page 1 and maybe chapter 1.
All of this means nailing the first chapter is critical. Of course, we owe it to our readers to maintain a high level of execution throughout the story, but there’s no point even talking about the middle and the end if we can’t convince someone to turn past page one of the beginning.
Chapter One Checklist
I have spent the past few months writing and rewriting and re-rewriting Act One of my Toby Fitzroy manuscript. If you think I’m exaggerating, ask my long-suffering crit buddies, many of whom have read umpteen attempts and for some reason still like me (at least I hope they do).
In my determination to nail my first page and chapter, I did some research, looked to the masters, and created a Chapter One Checklist, which I’ll share here.
Is the first line/s intriguing? (Got a hook?)
My last post dealt with great opening lines, so I won’t say much here.
Is the protagonist worthy of our care?
The reader has to see something familiar in the character to relate to. The word “relatable” makes my eyeteeth ache, but there it is. Make your character that—the R-word. Not too perfect. Not too pretty. Not unrealistically average-in-every-way, either. We don’t want a creepy Mary Poppins or a holey stick figure. What readers want is somebody we would gladly share a beer/coffee/midnight-munchies with.
You heard it here first.
Is the setting established? Place and Time?
It’s infuriating reading a book and not being able to work out when or where it’s happening. There’s the idea of “Anytown,” which has its purposes, but without surroundings and context, it’s hard for the reader to get traction with the story. Might as well give your characters a harp, plonk them on a cloud, and send them forth unto Glory.
Does something happen?
If chapter one is all backstory, better call Houston. Action—not fluff, not navel-gazing, soul-searching or existential angst. It’s all about things that happen.
*And by the way, (Hubby, I’m looking at you!) events other than car chases and explosions count as action. Like Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, who rolled out bed only to find he’d turned into a huge bug (Metamorphosis). MT Andersen’s Feed starts like this: “We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.”
See? No car chases, explosions, or shoot-outs, but both openers set up some awesome action.
Has the conflict been ignited?
No conflict, no story. ‘Nuff said.
Are the stakes revealed?
What will happen if the character doesn’t get what she wants? This is the very thing that will decide if your reader yawns or reads on. If it doesn’t matter to your character, it doesn’t matter to your reader.
Are the protagonist’s desires clear?
When the desires are clear, the reader can root for the protagonist—and keep reading to find out how it all pans out. Otherwise, the reader just skims along … La-dee-da … Oh gee! Time to pluck my brows and file my taxes … and get a root canal. (Bye-bye reader … )
Has the antagonist been introduced?
It’s no good making your reader wonder who (or what) is behind the bad stuff. Well, if it’s masterfully done, it can work, but don’t be too vague or the reader will wonder if the writer knows what the heck she’s doing.
Is the tone set?
I’m not ashamed to say I’ve been totally sucked into a book by a snarky voice alone. Tone doesn’t have to be snarky to be compelling; it just has to be distinct (and interesting. And not annoying.) Voice isn’t tone, but it sure is part of it. (Anyway, who knows what voice is.)
Is the theme touched upon?
Theme gives the story integrity and oomph. It’s the thing that makes readers sigh with pleasure when they’ve turned the last page, which means it develops across the book. Treat theme like perfume. It should be subtle, especially early in the book. Too heavy-handed, and it comes across as preachy and overpowering. It’s just gross.
Is there a clear wink to the genre?
Writers had better dish up what their readers are expecting. If mystery is on the menu, a body better be on the chapter one buffet. Whatever the genre, hint at those cues and conventions early. If a dragon suddenly turns up in chapter three of what was supposedly a hard-boiled mystery, your reader will have to reorient. And every time they scratch their head, their opinion of the writer’s credibility drops by 37.8 points. Three strikes and guess what?
I’ve done up the above checklist in a handy table (left). Send me an email if you’d like a digital copy of my Chapter One Checklist. It’s free; no weird strings attached, no email spam from me. There’s a contact form in the About Ali tab on the menu.
All images are CC.0, Public Domain.