Friday, July 1
Overcoming False Starts on Your First Chapter
This week's Refresher Friday takes another look at common mistakes in a first chapter. Enjoy!
It's all too easy to get stuck in chapter-one-rewrite-mode and never move beyond it. You reach the end of that important first chapter, but it just feels wrong, so you go back and rewrite it. And it still feels off. So you do it again. And again. Pretty soon, you're questioning your whole novel and if you even have what it takes to write one. You start thinking if you can't get the first chapter right, what hope do you have of crafting a good novel?
That's a lot of pressure to put on yourself, and on your brand-new novel before it has a chance to become a novel. If you find yourself stuck here, step back and look at the novel objectively. Ask:
1. Is this the right starting point for the novel?
If you get to the end and can't figure out how to get to the next important event, you might be starting too early. There's nothing driving the story past that opening. But if you get to the end and feel the need to revise and explain more so readers "get it," you might be starting too late and not covering the critical elements needed to understand the story.
(Here's more on knowing where to start your novel)
2. Is it the right point of view character?
You'll find this more often with multiple POV novels, but even a single POV novel can start off with the wrong character at the wheel. Maybe it's not this person's story after all. Or maybe another character would make a better first impression and get the story rolling faster.
(Here's more on choosing a point of view character)
3. Does your point of view character have a goal?
A lack of narrative drive is a sure fire way to stall a novel. Beginnings can be especially tough because the story hasn't technically started yet and you have to introduce the character and idea, while at the same time having a goal to advance the story.
(Here's more on creating narrative drive)
4. Does it cover an event worth reading about?
What's happening in the scene goes a long way toward hooking the reader. Are you offering something inherently interesting in some way, or just starting off like any other day in the life? Big or small, it doesn't matter, but find something a reader might care about.
(Here's more on creating the right story questions)
5. Are you being too picky?
Everyone has their own methods, but is it possible you expect perfection on a first draft? Give yourself permission to stink and move on. You can always edit later.
6. Are there things you don't know yet?
Sometimes the discovery is part of the process, but other times you need to know more details before the story falls into place. Is the missing piece something you can gloss over for now until you figure it out? Can you use a placeholder detail for now? If not, you might need to do a bit more planning before you dive back in.
In many cases, pushing past the sticking point will keep the writing momentum going. Try writing a few chapters and see how you feel after that. If it still feels all wrong by the time you get to chapter three, reevaluate your opening again. Maybe you've written enough by then to have a better idea of what needs to be done.
And of course, sometimes you just don't know the beginning until you get to the end. Once you see how a story resolves, you know instantly where it needs to begin.
How do you feel about first chapters? Hard to write or easy?
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel.
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
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