What goes into the first chapter

First chapters are tough. They are the ones people read first; the ones that either draw readers in or turn them away. Because of this, many writers (including myself) are tempted to start their books with a bang. But this is wrong. Very wrong.

The purpose of the first chapter is to set up the bang (aka, the inciting incident). I know, you’re thinking blah blah blah, why bother? If my character is going to end up on a boat that explodes, why not just start with the boat exploding? Here are¬†two reasons why you shouldn’t do this:

1) We don’t care about strangers
We must care about the main character before we can care about the inciting incident. Otherwise, it’s like when you read a story in the paper about some stranger getting in a car accident. Yeah, you think that’s too bad but your heart probably doesn’t ache as much as it would if it was your neighbour in the accident. Or your friend.

2) We need to be touching the ground before we can feel it shake
The whole point of the inciting incident (and the novel really) is to rock the character’s world in a way that it hasn’t been rocked before, but if we don’t know the character when they are still, we can’t understand how they feel when they rock. For example, imagine that your inciting incident is your main character finding out she has to go to a new school. If you tell us this on page one, we’re like, so? Maybe she wants to go to a new school? Maybe it’s better? But, if you take the time to show us that the main character LOVES her old school–that she can’t live without her best friend and the members of her photography club–then, we get it. We feel her pain. We feel the BANG!

Category: On Writing