What REALLY goes in the first chapter

As a follow-up to my post on what not to put in your first chapter, I thought I’d write one about what you SHOULD put in the first chapter. In my opinion, there are three purposes to the first chapter:

1) Establish the setting: The reader needs to know where and when your story is taking place. Whether that’s a castle in 15th Century England, a planet in 2300 AD, or a ditch in Ohio this December, you must tell us this and you must do it immediately. Some detail would be nice but now is not the time to describe a blade of grass for 12 pages. Actually, it’s NEVER the time to do that!

2) Establish the before picture of the main character: Blake Snyder calls this the Six Things that Need Fixing. One of my tweeps said she was told to “establish normal equilibrium for protagonist” (thanks Jenny Martin!) However you want to put it, you need to spend this chapter showing us who your main character is BEFORE their journey. We need to see WHY they need to change and we need to CARE that they do so.

3) Establish trust: I think this is the one writers miss the most often. While it’s important to hook us with an interesting character in a unique situation, there is no point in doing any of this is you don’t establish your credibility as a story teller. I’m going to use an example to illustrate what I mean. You’re at Six Flags and one of your friends suggests you go on some roller coaster called The Grim Reaper. You’re a little freaked out but you approach the roller coaster and watch it do a couple of rounds. Then you watch the people coming off and make sure they don’t look too bad. What do you do next? You look at the guy at the controls. Is he 13? 30? 300? Is he drunk? Covered in tattoos? Dressed like an Amish minister? My point is that your decision to get on is influenced by your opinion of the person to which you are entrusting your experience (or in this case, safety!) It’s the same with writing. If you start off by throwing around inaccurate facts or by leaving out thoughts or emotions a character could NEVER fail to have, we will not trust you and we will not get on your roller coaster.

Once you have done all three of these things, you can slam your main character with the inciting incident. This may happen at the end of chapter one or it may not happen until chapter five. I don’t think it really matters as long as you don’t skip the above steps.

Category: On Writing