Survival Strategies of the Best First Chapters
When you open a brand new book, the binding gives a satisfying crack. The pages smell of new ink and freshly dried glue. If you’re like most readers, you have hope that this book will be awesome. And you don’t necessarily want to put it down. But with limited time, most people are looking for an excuse to stop reading and do something more pressing. Studies show, that in books written for adults, the author has maybe an entire chapter to hook their reader. In writing for young adults and children, the author has an even smaller page allotment. If you’re a writer trying to get published, you have one page to hook an agent or an editor. The first chapter (especially your first page) is your golden ticket.
A first chapter is a contract between you and your reader. I thought I knew what that meant when I crafted my first novel, but I didn’t. When I wrote the draft of my newly released middle grade novel, “Survival Strategies of the Almost Brave,” the first scene began with two sisters sitting alone on a deserted road at the gas station waiting for their dad. I loved this first chapter. It had everything I thought a first chapter needed: an opening scene that began with a bang, drama, a great voice, a page turn…. But what I didn’t realize was that my first chapter was promising something I wasn’t aware of. After a few editors read my manuscript, it became clear to me that I wasn’t living up to what I had unknowingly promised in the first chapter. I will explain more about this later, but as I continued to write and revise my book, I learned a few things about writing a great first chapter.
First, you need a great hook. Everyone likes a hook. Everyone wants a hook, maybe they just don’t know it yet. As a reader you have great expectations. You hope that you are in skilled hands. Perhaps you want to like the main character. Maybe you want a distinct voice. You might like a mystery. Most of all, you want a book that you can’t put down. You want to be hooked.
A first chapter is like telling a joke. It has certain expectations. A joke is like a little story. It has a hook, a dilemma, and a punch line. As a listener, we recognize this structure and are willing to wait for the punch line. A first chapter can be written in the same way. Here are four things I think a writer needs to create a great first chapter hook.
- A mystery.
- A promise.
Voice is difficult to describe, but when you read a book with a compelling voice, you know it. There are no doubts about who the character is. From their distinct voice you feel like you know them already. A great voice has a unique style and way of phrasing language. Just think of your mom, best friend, spouse or child, all telling you the same story. They each have a distinct way of speaking. Make sure all of your characters have a different sound. Listen. Eavesdrop and then read. Read everything you can. And lastly, Elmore Leonard said, “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” I say, good call, Elmore.
A few great books that have a distinct voice are: “Feed” by M.T. Anderson, “Wintergirls” by Laurie Halse Anderson, “Smashie McPerter and the Mystery of Room 11” by N. Griffin, and “Chime” by Frannie Billingsly.
Empathy. A reader must care about the character. There must be some sort of emotion evoked while reading a first chapter. It doesn’t always have to be a happy emotion. Negative emotions can be a great catalyst for a page turn. No matter what you do, your first chapter must make your reader feel something. Write with enough emotion to make the reader want more. Create an emotionally charged scene where something is new, perhaps a turning point for the character or story. Create pathos. Khen Lampert said, “[Empathy] is what happens to us when we leave our own bodies…and find ourselves either momentarily or for a longer period of time in the mind of the other. We observe reality through her eyes, feel her emotions, share in her pain.”
Great books that show first page emotion are: “Jelicoe Road” by Melina Marchetta, “Charlotte’s Web” by E.B. White, “The Chosen One” by Carol Lynch Williams, and “I’ll Give You the Sun” by Jandy Nelson.
Next, a first chapter needs a mystery. Your book doesn’t need to tote the mystery genre to have it create a mystery. You want the reader to ask questions. What will happen next? What is going on? Is this believable? Is it plausible? Do I care? A mystery incites a page turn. I read this great advice from the writers of the TV drama, Scandal. I keep this list at my writing desk. “1. Everyone has their own story. 2. Everyone has their secrets. 3. Everyone lies. 4. You don’t know what you think you know. 5. Answers lead to more lies.” I think this is great advice for creating mystery in fiction. You don’t need to have all of these elements, but by using one or two of these, a writer can create a great first chapter.
Books which exemplify a great first page mystery are: “Ink and Ashes” by Valynne Maetani, “Bones and All” by Camille DeAngelis, “Holes” by Louis Sachar, “We Were Liars” by E. Lockhart, and “Fantastic Secret of Owen Jester” by Barbara O’Conner.
A promise. As an author you promise to stay in character and to stay in genre. You promise to keep story threads alive and fruitful. The first chapter says: This book is about…(and then stay true to that statement). You want the reader to know you trust them because they are smart. If you keep your promises, the reader will trust you, and will be willing to go along for the ride. Andrew Stanton, the creator of the movie Toy Story, said, “Your audience is a born problem solver. They want to figure out your story. Give the reader 2+2. Not 2+2=4.”
When I wrote my first draft of “Survival Strategies of the Almost Brave,” I had unknowingly made a promise to my readers. I set my protagonists on a road, but I didn’t let them use it. The first chapter implied that the main characters would go on a journey. But in the first draft, I didn’t let them. They stayed in one town for the entire novel. Looking back now, this was obviously frustrating to those who read my manuscript. They wanted to go somewhere. I had put the girls on a road and then left them there to languish.
When my (now) editor asked me to have my characters travel, I realized that I had to fulfill the promise I made in my first chapter and that I had to rewrite my entire book. I had promised a journey novel, now I needed to produce one. I could have rewritten the first chapter to match the rest of my book, but I felt very strongly that I wanted to keep my original first chapter. In the end, I kept seventeen pages of my first draft, and then I rewrote the rest of the book. It took me a while to figure out what I wanted to do with the story, but eventually I figured it out. And my book is the better for it. Currently, my first chapter in, “Survival Strategies of the Almost Brave,” is still my original chapter from my first draft.
I think every writer wants to create a rabid readership. Every writer would love to author a book that readers can’t put down. Pull out your work in progress and weigh it against these first chapter survival strategies. Does it: have a distinctive voice, evoke emotion, create a mystery, and make a correct and clear promise to your reader? If not, you may consider a first chapter revision…and let me know how it goes. I have found that I’m a little bit of a first chapter enthusiast, these days. I wish you that shiny, golden ticket–whatever that may translate into for you. An editor? An agent? A book contract? An amazingly crafted sixth novel? Poof. May it all be there for you.