“My first chapter’s not that great, but wait until you get to chapter three.”
I’m not making that up. It’s from a real query letter my former agent received.
The clueless author looking for representation wasn’t going to grab an agent with that letter, and she wasn’t going to hook any readers with her story. Your first chapter is one of the most crucial in your book. Along with the ending, which better leave the reader longing for more of your work.
I’ve been discussing first chapters for several posts now. Let me wrap up with a few more points.
Don’t promise the reader something you’re not going to deliver. You can’t write a fantastic first scene that will have nothing to do with the rest of the story. (Like in those old James Bond movies where the opening was an action set piece with no connection to the rest of the movie.) The beginning must tie into what follows and start the character development and plot that continue throughout the story.
As I write my first few chapters, I’m getting to know my characters. I may think I understand their motivation, their traits and their conflicts, but I never truly get into their heads until I’ve written forty or fifty pages from their point of view. I may have ideas about what they’re like, but I can’t fully know them until they start reacting to the situations my plot creates.
And here’s a piece of good news about your first chapter and every chapter. What you write isn’t set in stone just because the words are on the screen or even printed out. You can always write in haste and edit later. My goal is often to “get it down” so I have something to work with. I can make improvements and new ideas when I’ve got a little distance from my first draft. I usually go back and rewrite my first chapter after I’ve written more of the book. Usually my second thoughts on both my character and plot are a significant part of the finished product.
We’re always told that tension and conflict keep the reader turning the pages, but don’t start with too high a level of tension. The example I like to use is from a suspense novel I picked up years ago. In the first chapter, a diplomat is kidnapped and tortured by terrorists. They castrated him, and as he bled to death, I decided that I didn’t want to read a book that began with quite that much threat. I was pretty sure the hero was going to fall into these guys’ hands, and I didn’t want to be around to worry about his emerging with his manhood intact.
Back to what you should accomplish with your own writing. While it’s important to polish your first few sentences to a burnished glow, its final impact should have equal weight.
Try to end the first chapter (and every following chapter) with a cliff-hanger, a tantalizing last line or couple of lines that will make the reader burn to discover what happens next.
In the Intrigue I’m writing now, Carrie’s Protector, the hero and heroine are hiding out from terrorists who plan to kill them. The first chapter ends with:
Down the hall, Wyatt could hear doors opening and slamming shut again. When the door to the office where they were hiding opened, every muscle in his body tensed. He saw a shadow flicker on the wall--the shadow of a man holding a gun. The guy stood still for a moment, then started across the tile floor toward their hiding place.
And here’s the ending of Sarah Zettel’s first chapter in Sword of the Deceiver:
And it was done. Natharie lifted her head and met her parents' eyes. Father looked sad, but Mother's eyes were wild. She looked as if she would jump to her feet and shout denial just as the priest had, but she did not move. She could not move. Natharie had cast the dice, and only the Awakened One now could see how they would land.
I think both of those make you want to find out what happens next.
Thanks for stopping by. What are your thoughts on first chapters? Do you have any good examples of ending with a cliff-hanger? What didn’t I cover in the discussion of first chapters that you’d like to hear about?
One commenter will win an autographed copy of one of my recent Harlequin Intrigues.
Copyright © 2012 Ruth Glick
So enjoying this series of articles. Every one a gem with on-the-mark tips. Keep the advice coming!ReplyDelete
Thanks. Since I know you're a fabulous writing teacher, your praise means a lot!ReplyDelete
Your opening quote says it all--as for what not to do, I mean. It's in line with what a hopeful writer once said to my agent: "Sorry you don't care for my proposal, but if I could just talk to you about it for five minutes!" The goods have to be there and knock 'em dead on paper--immediately. As the cliche goes, there is usually is no second chance to make a good impression with agents, editors, or readers.ReplyDelete
I've always liked the phrase - begin as you mean to proceed. Set the tone for the novel in that first chapter.ReplyDelete
I think you touched on that with your example of the violent opening you mentioned as an example. You put that book down because you didn't want to read more of the same. Or worse. But perhaps that was the most graphic scene in the novel. If so, the author did her/himself a disservice leading with that. And, as you say, is the author going to be able to escalate that threat for the climax?
Nancy, thanks. Love the idea that an author thinks talking about his work is more important than the work.ReplyDelete
Roxy, the book was written by a man, which makes me think he was going to get more violent. I was once writing a suspense novel where I debated putting some cursing in the first scene. It would have worked well for the scene, but I didn't like the tone it was going to set for the book, so I took it out.
I had a writing student that told me that the third chapter really hooked. No, we can't wait that long. Editors and agents won't wait that long. Readers will give up before that most often.ReplyDelete
I listened to an agent/editor panel where one editor said they had a group afternoon where they'd sift through mss to see if any appealed. First sentence! That's all they read. ONE sentence. If it hooked, they'd keep reading. If that kept their attention, they'd keep reading. But if that first sentence didn't? It went into the reject pile.
As a fellow pantser, it sometimes takes me a few tries to know where my starting point is. I often end up lopping off a few pages to get to the true beginning of my story. I like what you said about not starting with the tension too high.ReplyDelete
Terry, yes I can tell pretty quickly if a book is going to work.ReplyDelete
Terri, I think of myself as a plotter, but I always do go in and modify what I've done at the beginning. (And lots of other places, too.) I can pants my way through a book, but I think it takes longer. Having the plot written down means I can refer to the outline as I work. And modify as needed.
It does take longer! I'm trying to discover ways of loosely plotting to save myself some time and not hit roadblocks as I move through a book. Writing yourself out of a bad direction can waste days.ReplyDelete
Terri, I NEVER get into a bad direction any more. And you are proving my point that it's easier to alter a 15-page outline than a 300-page book. If I guess I've written enough books to be experienced enough to know where not to go. Later in this blog I'll talk about outlining. What happens to me is that I may not understand a scene well enough to write it. Or I may not understand the plot well enough to go on. So I have to stop and THINK.ReplyDelete
Hum. I should read my replies. That should be, "I guess I've written enough books to be experienced enough to know where not to go."ReplyDelete
I think it's great to end chapters with cliff hangers. That helps make a page-turner. I also do it to myself as I write. Instead of completing a scene and having to begin from a dead stop when I sit down to write again, I don't quite finish it. That way I've got a running start next time. It's all about momentum. I'm aware I'm playing a trick on myself, but somehow it works every time.ReplyDelete
Good idea Toby. I often think I've finished a section, then go back and find I actually haven't.ReplyDelete
I find that I often end up deleting the first first chapter I write. As you say, I'm learning the characters and getting a feel for the tone, but sometimes what does down the first time through just isn't catchy enough. So chapter two, or even chapter three, sometimes become the first chapter of the submitted manuscript.ReplyDelete
The good news is that you can figure it out and fix it.Delete
I really like the insight about keeping on writing and not getting stuck in a first chapter funk. Sometimes I've found that I get into a mode of polishing those first pages and losing sight of the goal. It often becomes almost self-defeating, especially when I just can't get the beginning right. I get discouraged and stop.ReplyDelete
Go ahead and leave it for later. I like the concept of "the wrong" scene or chapter holding the place for the right one--when I figure out what it's supposed to be.Delete
Great job! I have often rewritten the opening scene after I finished the book and knew better what needed to be there.ReplyDelete
As I said to Pearl, you have plenty of chance to go back and do it "right." That's the great thing about writing. You can always make improvements later.Delete
That is why I can do NaNo and others can't I push to get the words on the page. I figure that is what editing is all about. I have been reworking my current wip since I discovered problems with how it was set before. But I had an idea the other day how I could wiggle it back to the original premise I had when I started it. First I have to contact my friend who sometimes listens to my hair brained ideas and helps me brainstorm it out.ReplyDelete
Ckcrouch, it also helps me to talk about my wip. Also, while I write fast, I like to have planned the book in advance. That way, I don't go down a wrong path and have to spend time fighting my way back.ReplyDelete
What an excellent blog. I so agree with you, Rebecca. I even tweeted this, because you have such good advice. I always tell my kids that only the 10 Commandments were set in stone. And your first chapter is crucial, as is how you end all of them.ReplyDelete
Thanks, Barbara. I think I have an opportunity to help writers "get it right."Delete
The first chapter is usually the easiest for me to write because by the time I get there, I've been plotting enough that I know what my characters will do. I agree as a writer and a reader that the first chapter is very important. If its boring or had nothing to do with the rest of the book, as a reader, I'll lose interest quickly.ReplyDelete
I plot a lot before I write, but I never know the characters well enough until I actually write the first few chapters. Before that, I'm making it up, if you know what I mean.Delete
I totally get what you're saying, Rebecca. I have to know where my story is going before I start, but it doesn't really GET going until the characters begin to speak to me. Great blog.Delete
Excellent blog and great advice for any writer.ReplyDelete
Thanks so much!Delete
I like stories that start strong, but if they are too dark I don't read the book. I'm still playing with my openings, but I notice that they are toning down in intensity as my series progresses and I have a greater sense of my characters and audience. I don't feel I need to shock anyone. I need to pull them in gently but firmly. We'll see how they work out.
Thanks for all the advice.
Thanks for stopping by. Yes, we learn what works for us from experience.Delete