First Chapters are a very fraught subject. Writers agonize over them. I don’t have to tell you! The pressure is enormous, isn’t it? The first chapter sells your submission and it sells your book once it’s published. It carries the whole weight of the book with it. It has to convey mood, tone, genre, foreshadowing, stakes, urgency, main character need and desire, setting, theme (especially, especially, especially theme) and the absolute sense that this is a journey that we want to take. And a dozen other things beyond that. (Note that I didn't mention "a great first line." I am not one of the cult of the first line.)
So how do we approach writing—or rewriting one?
(And if you’re writing a script, same advice goes, throughout this post.)
The best advice I can give you here is: Don’t sweat this one on a first draft. Or even maybe on the second.
Despite that scene we’ve all seen in practically any Hollywood movie with a writer character in it, there is no law that says you have to start your book by sitting down at your keyboard, cracking your knuckles, and typing “Chapter One.”
Your opening chapter might be the last thing you end up writing. You may be reading a first or second or third draft and find a chapter halfway through the book that you realize needs to go first.
But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be thinking about it, keeping it cooking on the back burner. And maybe you’re down to the wire and need some inspiration.
So here’s an exercise to help.
I’m sure you all have TBR (“to be read”) piles. Around our house these are worse than average, because we’re a two-author household. We both have hundreds of books on our Kindles for our own research and pleasure, but we also get sent tons of physical books to blurb by publishers and friends, and to add to the chaos Craig programs two book festivals and consults on others—so you can only imagine the submissions by panel hopefuls! When I was a full-time screenwriter, I had similar stacks of scripts.
So make use of these treasures!
1. Take 10 books from your TBR pile or shelf that you might feel like reading. Read just the opening chapter of each. Separate them into piles, kind of like with Marie Kondo:
Not grabbing me.
Interesting, I could go further.
Never mind the homework, I’m reading THIS one. Now go away.
2. Make a list of the books in that third pile, and then add first chapters by your own favorite authors that just turn you inside out. Keep listing until you have a Master List of ten books.
There is no question that reading a bunch of — well, anything — in a row gives you a good idea of what to do and not to do in executing that particular thing. But it’s doing the next work that will really get you far.
3. Take a look at what those storytellers are doing in those chapters. Break it down. Really look at it from every angle. What is it exactly that makes you commit in a few pages, a few sentences, a few words, to those authors and those stories?
I’ve reread The Firm about a dozen times and that first chapter still just knocks me out every time. Perfect thriller opening. The Shining, The Treatment, Rosemary’s Baby— with some books I’ve typed out the whole first chapter for myself to see exactly how every word and sentence is working to make me react the way I do. It works!
4. And then — and this is only after you’ve finished your first draft and have celebrated mightily – look at your own first chapter and be ruthless with yourself.
Are you doing whatever it is that they are doing that you love so much? Are you? Really?
Or is there something that you might do… just a little more like the ones on your Master List?
Remember, a first chapter doesn’t have to be explosive or perfect. If an author has written a book worth reading, the first chapter will communicate that (partly because if it hasn’t, the author will have rewritten the chapter or started over with a new chapter that introduces the book convincingly).
Trust that you will do the same.
And then do it.
Remember to add your list of Best First Chapters and your notes on them to your Book of Master Lists!
And I would love to hear some of your favorite first chapters and opening scenes!
From Screenwriting Tricks for Authors, © Alexandra Sokoloff
More on First Chapters in
Stealing Hollywood, Chapters 31-32,
Writing Love, Chapters 27-28.
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First Chapters, Part 2
I’d like to go on to point out the problems I see over and over and over again with first chapters in not-yet published writers. Common, but very fixable, problems! Hopefully you will find some fixes here.
1. INEXPERIENCED WRITERS ALMOST INEVITABLY START THEIR STORIES IN THE WRONG PLACE.
Now, please, please remember — I am not talking about first drafts, here. As far as I’m concerned, all a first draft has to do is get to “The End.” It doesn’t have to be polished. It doesn’t have to make sense to anyone but you. Your first draft is the discovery draft. Commonly called “the vomit draft.”