For the first time in a little over a year, I have a plot idea for a new novel. I outlined the story (check out my outlining process here) and created a protagonist to carry it all out. I decided to approach this novel with careful planning so I chose to live with the main character for a while before attempting to write her story. I mapped out her history, description and character arc. I followed people on twitter who are in the same profession, subscribed to some YouTube channels I think she would like and I now I really feel like I have a better understanding of who she is and what she wants. I did the same with the supporting characters and antagonist until finally I was ready to write.
There is such pressure surrounding the first chapter of a novel. The first line, the first paragraph, it’s all essential to hooking a reader and convincing them to saddle up for the long ride to the last line. I decided to review everything I have learned about crafting the first chapter before I attempted my first draft.
Establishing Tone and Setting up the Plot: The first chapter is your first impression on your readers so it’s important that your tone as a writer and as well as the mood of the characters are present. This is also the start of the journey towards the conflict so the plot needs to be established or teased so the reader knows this is going somewhere.
Avoiding the Information Dump: After all, of the planning and research it can be tempting to tell it all starting with the first line but it’s important that you avoid dumping too much information on your reader. No flashbacks, no in-depth history, focus on showing the characters’ personality instead of telling the reader why they are, how they are.
Create mystery without confusion: The purpose of every chapter is to convince the reader to read the next. It’s important to drop a few seeds of mystery to leave the reader with questions at the end of the first chapter that can only be answered by reading more. However, there is a fine line between mystery and confusion and it is difficult to keep your balance. The pebbles of mystery you drop should be easy to understand when coupled with the information in the first chapter but not easy to decipher without continuing deeper into the book.
Avoiding the Mundane: “I love it when I start a new novel and have to read an entire page about how someone I don’t know or care about wakes up, brushes their teeth and eats breakfast,” said no reader ever. Opening your story with the sound of an alarm clock is a sure-fire sign you are doing this wrong. Unless your character’s normal daily routine is important to the plot it’s best not to include it in the first chapter.
After all that information, I felt so much anxiety to really bring it for this project. Then I realized that the best advice for writing the first chapter was missing. The most important thing to remember is, don’t overthink it. I sat in front of a blank word document with a blinking cursor for a while and then switched to a blank page in my notebook psyching myself out of writing a story I believe in. The whole process seriously decreased my daily word count and frustrated me to no end.
So, here is what I finally did and advice to you. To avoid the pressure of writing your first chapter follow these steps:
- Don’t write it.
- Follow step one.
Skip to the part of the plot you are excited about. Skip to the end. Skip to the defining moment for your protagonist or an exciting action scene. Write the fight you can’t stop replaying over and over in your head. Write whatever part of your novel you can where the words flow and the tension doesn’t get in the way of progress. At some point, after writing other parts of the novel, you will come back to the first chapter and the pressure will dissipate.