Wednesday, February 16, 2011

What makes a good first chapter?



I remember the first time I fell in love with a book from page one. It was Sarah Dessen's This Lullaby.

I had discovered I wanted to be a Young Adult writer, so I went to Borders to see what was going on in YA fiction. They had quite a few by this Sarah Dessen chick, and I liked the covers. Her book descriptions sounded similar to mine, so I bought it and took it home.

I made myself lunch and sat in our kitchen's sunny eating nook. Then I opened This Lullaby and tumbled into Remy's world.

When I emerged hours later, I had that sensation of, "Wait ... where am I? What's going on? I had plans today, didn't I? Are they things I have to do, or can I move to a more comfortable chair and read the day away?"

(A side note, finishing This Lullaby led to an emotional breakdown during which I sobbed to my husband that I'd never get published because I would never be as good as Sarah Dessen. Why was I even trying? I'd never be able to write characters liked Remy and Dexter! Etc.)

We all want to create this sensation for our reader. (Not the emotional breakdown, but the lost-in-storyworld sensation.) To do this, we have to grab them from chapter one. From page one. Heck, from sentence one, if you can.

Here are some ways to draw in your reader:

Let us hear your character's voice right form the start.

The opening line of This Lullaby is "The name of the song is 'This Lullaby.' At this point, I've probably heard it, oh, about a million times. Approximately."

You can hear Remy's voice, can't you? You can tell she's jaded. Don't "ease us in" to who your character is. Show us right away.

Make it active

This is something I commonly see in manuscripts from beginning writers - the slow, painful build up. Opening on a typical day of the character's life. We travel with the character to school or her dead end job. We travel home with her. She nukes a burrito. She goes to bed. She wishes for a different life. And, frankly, we wish we were reading something else.

To pull us into your character's world, let us see him or her in action. In the opening scene of This Lullaby, Remy is meeting with her future step-father about wedding stuff because she's planning her mom's wedding. Her mom's fourth wedding.

I watched Social Network over the weekend. It opens with Mark getting dumped.

So Over It starts with Skylar running into her ex-boyfriend - who she still loves - at Blockbuster
with another girl.

Let your reader arrive fashionably late

The party should already be swinging when you open up your book.

By which I mean. This Lullaby doesn't open with Remy driving over to her future step-father's office. In Social Network, we drop into the scene in the middle of the conversation. We don't have to watch the main character go pick up his date. So Over It starts when Skylar spots Connor, not when she's at home with her sister and they decide to go get a movie.

I think the best example of this is Lost. I knew I was going to love that show when it opened on a close-up of Jack's face as he comes to after a plane crash. He has no idea where he is or what just happened, and we get to go for the surprising ride along with him. A more traditional place to start would have been on the plane, a couple minutes before the crash. I love what the writers chose instead.

So take a look at your opening and see if your character is doing something, or if you're starting your book too early.

As always, if you have writing questions, e-mail me.

34 comments:

  1. This is a great piece, and it really makes me inspired to begin another book! (But no, no, I can't!) See what you've done?

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  2. This is one of the hardest lessons to learn, I think. But it helps to realize that if you start in the wrong place, it's not wasted--it's often very helpful for YOU to get a feel for your character's "normal" day . . . then you can chop those first few pages later and start with more action once you know them. =) In one of my manuscripts, I had originally started with some very boring introspection--I decided instead to have my character galloping a horse along the beach, thinking of the glories of riding a stolen mount. Muuuuuuch better.

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  3. Thank you. Opening paragraphs and chapters are the hardest for me. This really helped!

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  4. Great post =) I love what you said about having your readers "arrive fashionably late".

    "This Lullaby" is the only book that I own by Sarah Dessen. I read the first half of it about two and a half years ago, but for some reason stopped reading. I wasn't as much of a reader then as I am now, though. So I might just give it another try. =)

    Tessa

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    1. The first time I read my now-favourite book, I put it down half way through. Went back to it a year later and cursed myself for my stupidity, lol ;)

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  5. Fashionably late is a great way to think of it :)
    I've never read Sarah Dessen but you are making me think I need to try since you bring her up so often.
    Almost ever book I like makes me think I'll never write as good as them, I think insecurity & the comparison trap are my biggest struggles

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  6. Lol, Kelsey. I love writing beginnings...

    Roseanna, that's a great point. Nothing wrong with a little trial and error before you find the right starting place.

    Jennifer, I'm so glad it helped!

    Tessa, isn't it funny how readers are all so different? I won't harbor any hard feelings if you try it again and still don't like it :)

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  7. Tonya, I think all writers struggle with it to a degree. You've left a comment before about putting blinders on and running our race the best we can. I think that's a great method.

    Sarah Dessen is a wonderful writer. Definitely worth checking out :)

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  8. I did! Thanks for the reminder :)
    I have a couple questions should I post them here or email you?

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  9. I still haven't read a Sara Dessen book. Must do.

    I also LOVE the "fashionably late" comment. Perfect. And yes, I was totally guilty of the slow painful buildup in the beginning. It makes so much sense when you chop it, and I like what Roseanna says about going ahead and doing it knowing you can chop it later. Sometimes we need to "get it out" I think. It's almost like creative research.

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  10. Tonya, why don't you e-mail them to me? It's easier for me to keep track of them that way.

    Nicole, I'm loving the phrase "creative research."

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  11. I think I need to rewrite some things haha...
    I just realized one of my favorite books I wrote has a bit of a boring school scene starting in the first few sentences of chapter 1. Ouch.

    Any ideas on how to find something to make that first chapter exciting enough?

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  12. I think I'm halfway there. I did try, mind you -- I don't like books where we're introduced to their life the way it always has been, and THEN we enter the ride -- I like, as you said -- entering fashionably late. The story's already begun, and it's way more interesting.

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  13. Jazmine, you can always take a look at what you've done in your second or third chapter and see if there's something there that would make a more interesting opening. I hear lots of writers say they wind up discarding their first chapter or two.

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  14. I will not be able to put a book down that does that, but other books I have a hard time getting started, because the intro is so boring! I really used that knowledge when I started writing the story I am working on. It's about a girl that is paralyzed from the waist down, and the opening lines are, "They say I’ll never walk again. I believe them. I can’t feel my legs at all. No pain, no movement, no nothing."
    Now, I just have to figure out how to keep the excitement going!

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  15. I have got hundreds of ideas for stories, but when it comes to writing them, I can't seem to do it. I just dilly-dally around and procrastinate until another idea comes, and I'm tired of doing that. I just want to finish something. What am I doing wrong?

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    1. It's possible you just haven't hit THE idea yet. You'll need an idea that's exciting enough to get you motivated and big enough to sustain a story. Have you tried outlining at all? Maybe seeing the potential in your idea would help.

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    2. Forgive me for asking, but I'm new to writing, so just what is outlining exactly?

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    3. Love your name, Roseanna. ;-) Outlining is when you set your story out point-by-point. Basically turning it into a list. My outlines generally have headings either of time periods or overarching events (Like: (1) Lark's Birthday (2) Penelope arrives (3) The Showdown) and then I have bullet points under those (Like: (a) pirate thoughts (b) Emerson gives gift (c) argument)

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    4. Thanks, Roseanna White. I really, really love writing and someday I hope to have my books published. There's just one more question: If you have two ideas, how do you decide which one to write?

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  16. Hi Stephanie! I love reading these blogs on how to start writing the first few chapters, because I'm really trying to work out my Writer's Block (which hits me a lot BTW)

    I had a question. I'm writing a fantasy novel (plus I love reading these), and I was hoping you could give me some advice on how to start it. Most Fantasy books are fictitious, so most of the things that happen can't be related to by someone :/ Such as, say, getting kidnapped by a witch who wants to steal the guy you love's beauty. X)

    ~Elise

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    1. That's a great question, Elise! Jill Williamson (who writes both fantasy and sci-fi novels) is going to write up a post on that. Thanks!

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    2. LOL! Cracked me up. Please publish this, I'm dying to read it!! X)

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  17. Thanks for the post!

    Quick question, I know we want to start out fashinably late.

    So in my story my character gets kidnapped right off, should I start a little before she gets kidnapped (So we see her life and interactions with friends and family) while she's getting kidnapped, or just after she's been kidnapped?

    Thanks!

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    1. I would start a little before. Enough to establish her home world and why we should even care about her getting kidnapped. Just my opinion!

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  18. Brilliant advice for any writer, not just YA authors. Finding the best place to drop readers into your book is key for attracting/keeping an agent or editor's attention. Not to mention a reader's! Remember how we dropped right into the outdoor soiree with Scarlett O'Hara leading the twins on? Yes, we knew right away what SHE was like!

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  19. My best friend writes killer first lines that literally grab you by the throat... and then never finishes anything!! Grrr! I can never write really good first lines, but I LOOOOOOOVE chapter endings ;)

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  20. My beginning is Reginae (my MC) waking up. She has a sort-of case of sort-of temporary amnesia, so she is confused at first. Then she sees a light, and then she sees a face, which leads to the discovery of where she is, who she is, and what happened. How do I incorporate my character's voice in a beginning like that?

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  21. Here's up until the first paragraph of a fun book I'm writing:

    “You called for me?” Darian said with mock politeness.
    Leader looked up from the mountains of paperwork on the ruby-red desk and eyed Darian with distaste, “Unfortunately.” She grumbled.
    Sitting down with a thump, Darian's left eyebrow rose as he waited. He’d never liked this lady, and he made no effort to hide it.
    Leader sighed, “Do you know why you’re here?”
    Darian cocked his head, “Please, enlighten me.”

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  22. I fell in love with this blog as soon as I found it yesterday.

    I'm working on a book similar to middle earth... And it's very time consuming to make a world. Except I'm even worried about writing my book. We have but one comp. in our house and everyone is either doing hw or other stuff and I just never seem to have time. Also can you give me some writing group websites or something?

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    1. Im working on a fantasy book too :) I think that Go Teen Writers has a facebook page. im not sure what it is though. I think youll be able to find it if you click on "New? Start here!"

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  23. Thank you for your post! It was very helpful. I started writing more seriously about a year ago, drifting from idea to idea, and I've finally found an idea I like enough to stick with, but I have a question about it. In the beginning of my my book, my MC is kidnapped, and right now, I'm starting with her waking up (her kidnappers injected her with an anesthetic to put her to sleep) in a car after her kidnapping, but I was wondering if it would be better to start with a little bit of a normal day. She does talk about her normal life in the first few chapters multiple times, but I still don't know if that's enough. Could you let me know what you think? Any help you could give would be appreciated.

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  24. I couldn't get my reply button to work, but this is for Anonymous. I don't have a website for you, but you need a notebook. Write it down instead of typing it first. Tell me when you get finished. I might find your published book in a bookstore. I really like fantasy books!

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  25. Okay, I've loved reading and writing since I was 3, so I have some experience in the writing prospect. I know getting the writer hooked right away is key, then leaving them wanting more after reading it is the jackpot, but I never seem to get it quite right. What could I be doing wrong, I've been praised by teachers for how much detail I put into essays and stories, could it be possible to be putting too MUCH detail into the story?

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