Have you ever picked up a new book and started reading, but for some reason you lost interest? Or maybe it was confusing and you got frustrated. As a beginning writer, you may be surprised to learn that the actual structure of chapter one is vital to the success of your novel. What your characters do in chapter one has the power to compel your readers to continue or toss down the book in frustration.
We’ve talked about expectations based on the genre of your novel, but readers also have expectations for the first few pages. Not only was I ignorant of this when I first started writing, but I didn’t want to be constricted by rules. I wanted to write something new and invocative, something fresh and in my own voice. Come to find out, it doesn’t work that way, at least not for beginners. When you’re struggling to shoulder your way into the market, why fight the recipe for success?
First of all, remember that most people don’t search through a bookstore hoping to spend cash on a book they’ll hate. There may be some doubt as they begin reading, but for the most part, readers hope they have found a story they will enjoy. They want the characters to be believable and someone they can care about, good or bad. They want the plot to be interesting, and the story to open up before them. If the reader starts out on your side, you don’t want to turn them away. Research has shown that a reader will go along with the flow for the first two pages of a novel before they begin to get frustrated or disillusioned. That gives you only about 500 words to get it right.
So what are these guidelines for a successful first chapter? There are many ideas out there but here are some basic strategies to keep in mind.
First and foremost, you don’t want to turn your readers off. The two quickest ways to aggravate a reader are to confuse them or insult their intelligence.
If you plan to write a flash-bang beginning and then resolve and explain the goings on later, be advised that you have two pages to hold the interest of your reader. You must somehow give them enough insight into your character, or even the setting, to keep them on track and compel them to keep reading. Some part of those pages must be believable, interesting, and ring true to the reader. If the reader has no idea what’s happening or why the characters are acting the way they do, you have only a few pages to fix it. At the very moment you’re trying to draw the reader in, you certainly don’t want them to think “This doesn’t make any sense,” or “What rubbish,” . (I’ve always wanted to write the word rubbish) Be sure to give the reader a reason to trust you and continue on with hope. Make them care.
What about suspense? Certainly some genres call for anticipation, but be very careful in those vital first few pages to make the problem clear, not confusing. In life we stumble about wondering what’s going on a good portion of the time, but a reader will most likely have no patience with bewilderment just as their getting started. Make the reader trust your competence to lead them through the story.
Writing can be very cathartic. You have the power to place yourself (or a character) into a situation and then control the outcome. We certainly don’t have this power in reality. With this in mind, some beginning authors place characters into situations they themselves have not figured out, which leaves the reader in the same uncomfortable position. You are the first audience for your novel. If it doesn’t make sense to you, it surely won’t make sense to a reader. If the first chapter feels lackluster or blurry to you, you can be guaranteed it will feel flat or be confusing to your readers as well.
Maybe you have a setting in mind for a story, and characters to place in the setting, but you’re not sure how to develop the characters in a way to draw the reader into your story. Maybe your character’s personalities and motivation are still a bit foggy in your mind. In the book Characters and Viewpoints, by Orson Scott Card, he suggest that you think “Who suffers the most in this situation?” Focus on the person who needs most to change things, and that person will be one of your main characters.
Next, to help you move forward, Card suggests you ask “What made this happen?” What is the purpose?” and “What is the result?” “What can go wrong?” By thinking about these prompts you can begin to pull out information about the character’s motivation, thus helping you decide what to include in those important first few pages to draw your reader into the story.
Readers expect to be introduced to the main characters right away, but be careful not to introduce too many characters in those vital pages. Hone your writing down to fundamental characters and leading ideas to cut down on confusion. Also be careful to not name your characters with similar names or names beginning with the same letter. In the beginning, your readers will have little patients for going back to reread and sort out who is who.
Consider how much of those first few pages you devote to describing minor characters or events. Don’t lead your reader’s early expectations down the wrong road, this can only lead to frustration.
We all want to write a finely crafted novel, but the first few pages are perhaps the most vital to your novel’s success. Unlike early in my writing career when I was driven to create something extraordinarily different, I’m now search for ways to fashion my stories in the most appealing and effective manner. Never hesitate to look for what is working in the marketplace. Successful people are often willing to share their secrets. Snap up these details like the jewels they are, and begin creating your story today!