Why does the first chapter intimidate so many writers? Nancy Kress, popular science fiction author and Nebula Award winner put it simply when she said, “The truth is, you have about three pages in a novel, to capture the editor’s attention enough for her to finish your story.”
We know the same holds true for our readers. The first chapter decides if this book is worth the reader’s time. It’s the most severely judged chapter in your entire novel. At the outset, readers have very little reason to commit to your story. With that in mind, we must give the reader solid reasons to commit to characters, problems, even worlds that they know nothing about, in just a few pages.
So how do we do it? How do we sell the first chapter to the reader? What does a first chapter really need anyhow? Behind the narrative of every story lays unseen structure that separates winning novels from forgettable ones. The invisible qualities of your story are equally as important as the visible qualities of it. The reader can’t put their finger on it, but he feels it when this invisible structure is missing or weak. The book isn’t striking him, and soon he loses interest. So what is this fundamental structure?
Your Story's Promise:
Every story has an all-encompassing promise as the foundation of the novel. Promises are specific to certain genres and influence the story’s central theme. The promise either touches the reader emotionally or intellectually.
The emotional promise says: Read this and you’ll be thrilled, titillated, nostalgic, uplifted, depressed, etc.
The intellectual promise says: Read this and you’ll see the world in a new light, your beliefs about the world will be confirmed, or you’ll learn of a world far more interesting than our own.
As a writer, you must know what promise your novel makes to the reader. The introduction should clearly state your novel’s promise. Novels typically offer promises unique to their genre. For instance, if you’re writing a science fiction novel, then your promise will typically be the intellectual type. But if you’re about to pour some wine, light a few candles, and write out a steamy romance novel, then your reader is looking for an emotional promise in your story. Intertwining both promises is possible but requires careful weaving. Some of the best novels, such as The Hunger Games series, intertwine both promise types impeccably. The promise must be the theme throughout the story, or you will betray your reader’s trust. And, funny enough, your novel’s ending will only feel satisfying to the reader if what is promised at the outset comes to fruition in the end.
The Killer First Line:
The first line is the hook, capturing the reader through a solid promise of intrigue. Stephen King once said about opening lines, “An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.” The first line in your story is when the glass shatters, so to speak. It tells the reader what conflict can be expected in the story, and who it will affect.
What makes for a killer first line, then? Grab your favorite novels and re-read the first lines. What does that first line promise? What does it tell you about the voice of the story? What draws you in to keep reading?
Here are more excellent intro lines that shaped the novels they represented perfectly:
“They shoot the white girl first.”
–Paradise, Toni Morrison
“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
– Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
“You better tell nobody but God.”- The Color Purple, Alice Walker
“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.”
–Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston
“Since it’s Sunday and it’s stopped raining, I think I’ll take a bouquet of roses to my grave.”
-“Someone Has Been Disarranging These Roses”, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
These first lines achieved three things vital to a killer first sentence:
- They promised conflict central to the story
- They engaged the reader
- They provided the narrative voice for the story
The narrative voice is, in fact, one of the most important factors in first sentences. Stephen King said about this fact, “For me, a good opening sentence really begins with voice. You hear people talk about “voice” a lot, when I think they really just mean “style.” Voice is more than that. People come to books looking for something. But the don’t come for the story, or even for the characters. I think readers come for the voice… an appealing voice achieves an intimate connection- a bond much stronger than the kind forged, intellectually, through crafted writing.” Clearly, voice has a massive impact on your readers, and so the first line must be the ambassador of that voice, so to speak.
Voice depends much on the narrator you choose to tell the story. For instance, in The Great Gatsby, the main character was Gatsby himself, but the narrator was Nick Carraway. His voice, his POV (point of view) set the perfect tone for the novel. We felt what Nick felt, we believed what Nick believed. We witnessed love, tragedy, and human frailty from the most ideal perspective: that of the innocent, awe-struck cousin of Gatsby’s main’s squeeze, Daisy Buchanan. So which POV will you select to be the narrator of your story? Further, what narrative style will you choose for this POV? It could be a first-person recounting like The Hunger Games series, sercond-person like The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, or it could be a third-person narrative like Marissa Meyer’s popular series The Lunar Chronicles.
There are three more fundamentals every first chapter needs to be considered a killer first chapter. What are those fundamentals? And how can you incorporate them into the novel you’re writing currently?
#TheNaNoWriMokit has the answers:
#theNaNoWriMokit not only discusses the complete fundamentals every killer first chapter needs, but this power-house workbook also includes:
- A suggested daily word count goal
- How to create an outline
- Pages for character crafting
- Tips for creating powerful sentences
- The secret to writing a satisfying ending
- Advice on how to edit your manuscript like a pro
- How to break into Act 2, or your novel’s “middle part”
- Where and when to submit your work to the official NaNoWriMo contest
And much more!
But most importantly, the kit includes a tight, organized 30-day schedule that will help you reach your NaNoWriMo goal while keeping your day job and enjoying the nightlife.
Even if you’re not participating in #NaNoWriMo2017, this kit can still help every writer perfect their novel.
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Have any comments or questions? What are some fantastic opening lines from your favorite novels? Is there a first chapter from a favorite novel that resonates with you? Take a moment to share it below in the comments section. I’d love to hear from you!