Constructing First Chapters
Hey, Tumblrites. I know it’s been a while since I’ve posted anything useful, but I have been busy with trying to get The Stars Are Infinite, sequel to When Stars Die,done on a deadline so that way it can be published some time next year. I’ve also been busy with publicity stuff for my book, as well as some minute platform building, which I will do a post on, because even if you are with at traditional publisher, you are still going to be expected to do a lot of publicity and platform building yourself.
In any case, I am back to working on When Heaven Was Blue, which is about a mentally-ill teen tormented by a vile voice that wants him for the beauty it claims he has—which ultimately leads to a suicide attempt in an effort to escape this dangerous voice.
After writing the second draft, I wasn’t satisfied at all with how things ended up. I wanted it to be the next book to come out after WSD, but as with all drafts, sometimes you just need to take a break from it, so I decided to go back to TSAI after having shelved it for a couple of years. Now I’m back to Blue, and I forgot how hard it was to write a satisfactory first chapter, which I didn’t have in the second draft of Blue. I’m still not satisfied with it, but after having a conversation with my critique partner, I know exactly what direction it needs to be taken in, so I am here to offer some advice on first chapters.
- Get in late. Get out early. When I wrote the new chapter one the other day, I had the main character spending two pages in bed lamenting how much depression sucks and how he’s going to swallow all of his pills to end the pain of depression. The problem with doing it this way was that I should have already had him swallowing the pills—while lamenting on some depression— (there was no reason to have a scene of him trying to find the pills) while hearing the voice that torments him—so it should have primarily focused on that heavy part, because suicide is such a taboo thing for us that to open a chapter with a suicide attempt would be shocking. I’m going to have him lament on the suckiness of depression once he wakes up in the hospital after his attempt. So hopefully all of this will shorten the chapters from 13 pages to 9 or ten. Now all chapter ones are going to be different, but it’s best to follow the rule of thumb that you should get in late and get out early. Now if you’re writing a literary novel, you can bend these rules, as John Green does in The Fault in Our Stars.
- Tension. You need a lot of tension in the first chapter that must continue to rise right up until the end. I end the first chapter of Blue by having Gene jolted awake by the menacing voice, which grows increasingly aggravated to the point it begins to scream in Gene’s head. So he leaps out of bed, tries to run out of the atrium, and the nurses have to grab him and hold him down while giving him a shot of Ativan. Doing it this way is going to make the readers wonder just what this voice is and why it wants him, so this will make them want to continue reading on.
- Make readers care about the character. Now readers don’t need to know everything about the character in the first chapter, but the one way to make a reader care about the character is to have the first chapter centered entirely on the protagonist. All other characters are going to remain minor in that first chapter so that way your reader can establish a connection with the main character.
- No backstory. You can have a little bit, possibly a teensy bit, but you first need to get readers to care about your character and the situation your character is going through before throwing in some backstory. Otherwise, it will bog down the chapter, slow the pacing, and kill the drama.
- Outline. Outlining that first chapter will sort of take away the frustration of doing it. But remember that with your first two drafts, the chapter ones you started with are likely not going to be the chapter ones in your final draft. And they shouldn’t be, because when you’re revising, you’re looking at every part of the story and thinking of how you can make it better, which often involves a complete structural breakdown of the book, which is sort of what I’m going to be doing for Blue.
Well, these are just five tips for structure a first chapter. There are many, many more tips out there, so if you have any questions, feel free to shoot me a message!