Beginnings Are a Delicate Time (Or how to make sure your first chapter doesn’t crash and burn.)

There’s a quote from Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune’ that seems appropriate right now. “A beginning is the time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct.”

If you’ve ever written a novel, you’ll know that the first chapter is something to agonise over – to get right. Some months ago, I wrote a post about getting the first page of the first chapter right – and if you’ve read it, you’ll know that I learnt about it the hard way.

In many ways, I’ve learnt about the whole of the first chapter the hard way as well, and I’m writing this in the hope that you won’t have to.

The first chapter is a huge part of your story. After the blurb/cover/title gets a prospective reader to take a look at your book, the first chapter is the make or break moment that keeps the reader from putting the story down and never experiencing the full greatness of your fabulous creation.

So, to the important points.

  1. A Killer First Line: It has to drag the reader into the whole first paragraph, and then onto the rest of the first chapter. Make it memorable. Make it not a cliche.
  2. Make it gripping: A Character Who Isn’t Going To Be a Minor Role: If you’re going to a lot of effort to drag the reader into the story, don’t make them love a character who isn’t going to hang around or be the focus of the story. If you do, you’ll probably find the reader discarding your book about the time they realise that the character they’ve come to love isn’t important.
  3. Much Showing: If you’re not sure what the difference is between showing and telling, stop right now and find out. Head off here and have a quick read. Make sure your reader is swept up in what your character is doing, and not reading a list of what they’ve had for dinner, or how many buttons their shirt has. (Unless of course they’re magic buttons, and the loss of one is about to end the universe.)
  4. Something Has to Happen: If you’re going to show something, it needs to be something important – something with direct bearing on the rest of the story, or at least demonstrates some of your character’s crucial conflicts.
  5. Pace It Well: To keep someone reading, they have to want to know what happens next. For some people, pacing seems almost instinctive, while others have to work at it. Your first chapter sets the tone for the rest of your story. If you start out glacially slow, your reader may not last until all the action starts. If you start with an enormous blast, and then stutter in the middle of the story, your reader might give up in despair, feeling cheated. They key to good pacing is to start out as you mean to continue, providing your reader with incentive to keep flipping the pages, desperate to find out what happens.
  6. Most of All, Know Where You’re Going At the End: Your first chapter needs to go somewhere and not fizzle out vaguely. It needs to lead into the next one.

Back to the quote “A beginning is the time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct.” It is delicate sometimes, it is difficult and it’s often a balancing act, but more than anything, getting that first chapter right means the reader reads the rest of your story, gets to know your characters and is ensnared by the world you’ve created for them.

If you’d like to head on over to Freshly Squeezed Reads, you’ll find some other great posts on first chapters. While you’re there, check on the #C1Blitz competition.

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