7 Things to do (Or not to do) In Your First Chapter

Hey everyone! It’s been awhile since I did a writing tip. This tip is going to focus on how to craft your first chapter. Oftentimes for beginning writers, the first chapter can be tricky to get down. Today I’m going to show you seven things you should (or shouldn’t) do when writing your first chapter.

Disclaimer: Obviously there are always exceptions to rules. These all may not be hard and fast rules for you and your story. Some may extend even beyond the first chapter, others, depending on the story, may not count at all. But in general, these are the rules and guidelines I have heard and learned from other traditionally published authors and writing sites. So use whatever best works for your story!

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#1: Don’t Open With Boring Details

Your job as an author is to get people to read your book. You want them to experience the wonderfully crafted story and world which you’ve put into your book. But oftentimes people lose prospective readers within the first five to ten pages because they open with boring details. It’s good to have details. But details without story bores people.

Some boring detail openers could be:

  • Description about the landscape.
  • Description about the weather.
  • Describing a character’s looks or clothes.
  • Describing mundane details of a character’s life that don’t progress the story.

All of the above-mentioned details are important, however they should be layered into the story, not dumped onto the reader right in the first page. You can have a character remark how glad they are the sun is out since they can go to the beach now, or have someone boarding the subway in the bustling metropolis. Rather than telling the person “It was rainy”, have a character pop open an umbrella before leaving the house, or have another character remind them to bring their umbrella. That way you’re both interesting the reader and getting the necessary details across to them.

#2: Introduce Your Main Character Quickly

I read a story once, where the main character (titular character, actually), was not introduced until four or five chapters had passed. This book is a classic, yet the main titular character hardly had any book time at all. In fact, he did two heroic things and sat around injured the rest of the book. The villain, even the SIDE characters got more time than he did. The name of this book? Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott. (If you’re going to read this book, PLEASE read an abridged copy, they’re much more bearable.)

This book showed me the importance of what NOT to do in a first chapter, however. It had the above-mentioned type of opening, filled with boring details about the landscape, character’s clothes, and so on. When I finally got to see some dialogue between the characters (one of whom I assumed HAD to be Ivanhoe), I discovered neither were him. It really grated on my nerves, since I kept thinking with every new character, “Well maybe this is him? Nope.”

The lesson: introduce your main character quickly. Let your readers know who they should root for, and show him/her in action. If you do introduce a character other than your main character for the first chapter, then make it clear that he/she is not the main character. In Ivanhoe, the only reason I knew the two side characters introduced first in the first chapter were not the main character was because of the title of the book. If you do introduce a different character, such as the villain, in your first chapter, however, still introduce your main character as soon as possible, in the next chapter, if plausible.

#3: Don’t Clog Your Opening With Backstory

When you introduce your main character, it may be tempting to include a ton of backstory along with them, so the reader can know him/her just as well as you do. You may include his date and place of birth, his looks, his ancestry, his likes and dislikes, his childhood events, parents, interesting details about his life that will actually mean something later on, and so on. In the first draft, I wouldn’t sweat this. Add as much as you can.

However, from the second draft onward, this needs to be addressed. Write all your character’s backstory down on a piece of paper or character sheet to keep for yourself for record, and cut most of it out of your first chapter. Character backstory, like description, if dumped all at once upon your reader, can slow the story and make the reader stop reading or skim to “get to the good stuff”. But like with the description, layered in, overtime, it can really enrich a story.

Backstory is important, especially if things which happened in the character’s past have an effect on the present story. However, the reader should find this out gradually. Make it like a mystery. Tease towards the events which transpired in the past, giving a little bit more information as the story progresses. Make the reader wonder why your character is, for example, deathly afraid of water, or has a strong aversion to marriage. This will make them keep reading, to find out more. Just make sure you deliver what you promise. Don’t set up your character as deathly afraid of water, and then never explain that she nearly drowned as a three year old when a boat overturned. That will only annoy your reader.

#4: Introduce Your Inciting Incident

This one is important. Many people start their stories off with their character just going about their daily lives, waking up, brushing their teeth, going to work, eating lunch, coming home, watching tv, eating dinner, and going to bed. While this may be the set-up for some rare inciting incident, oftentimes the incident can be triggered within the first ten pages.

What is the inciting incident? In plain terms, it is the single act which triggers the whole rest of the story. The murder occurs, the boy meets the girl, the man is conscripted into battle. Does this mean you have to have guns blazing and your main character on the run in sentence one? No. You can have your story start with the man eating dinner with his family. But then have the mailman knock on the door and hand him the conscription notice. That can happen within two to three pages. But you can also have your story start with your character on the run, guns blazing if you want.

Basically, start the main conflict in the story as soon as you possibly can.

#5: Beware of Info-Dumping

Similar to both #1 and #3, info-dumping is the bane of many a writer. Description and backstory are different types of info-dumping, but there can also be more.

Other types of info-dumping could be:

  • Giving a history about the world. (If this is necessary to place at the very beginning of the book for whatever reason, consider making it a prologue instead of putting it in the first chapter.)
  • Info-dumping through dialogue (having a character speak about another character’s backstory or giving information about the world).
  • The description or makeup of an important mythical creature/made up procedure in the world. Extraneous world-building, basically.
  • A description of a character’s every action or job.

Like the other types of info-dumping, these details may be important. Look for places where you can layer the detail in, just as you should with landscape description and backstory.

#6: Stick to One Point Of View

Point of view is also a bane of many a writer. In fact, until a few years ago, it was my biggest bane. Point of view can mean two things, and for each, you should stick to one. The first thing is the style in which you will write the book.

  • First Person Point of View: “I did this, I did that.” The Main Character is the narrator, telling the reader the story.
  • Second Person Point of View: “You did this, you did that.” I can’t quite say I’ve ever read a book in second point of view, but its basically the narrator describing what “you” did in the book.
  • Third Person Point of View: “He did this, he did that.” A non-existent narrator is describing what the characters are doing in the book. Third Point of View is the most common, and also has two sub-sets: Close Third Point of View and Omniscient Point of View.
  • Omniscient Point of View: This is when the narrator is like “God”. The narrator knows all things and sees all things. He can know what multiple characters are thinking, he can say things like, “But she didn’t know what was coming next” and so on. Basically he knows things that the characters in the book couldn’t possibly know.
  • Close Third Point of View: This is when one character is picked for the book or chapter/scene, and it is told through his eyes. This is my favorite to write in, and I will get into it more below.

Since second POV (point of view) is hardly used, I will be focusing on first and third POVs in this topic.

First POV is simple. For example, let’s say our main character is named Liz, and the story is told from her point of view. The story would go like, “I (Liz) walked to the grocery store and bought some oranges.”

Now, the second meaning of the “point of view” phrase in writing has to focus on the individual characters. In real life, you cannot read anyone’s thoughts and motives but your own. All you have to go on is their actions, words, and tone. The same should go for your character.

With the example of Liz above, in first person, I will show you an incorrect and correct way to use point of view.

  • Incorrect: I walked to the grocery store and bought oranges. The heavy bag made my arm ache. The cashier looked at me and wondered why I didn’t buy apples too.

That is incorrect, because Liz is the point of view character. She couldn’t possibly know what the cashier was wondering. This is called “head-hopping”, which is something I struggled with immensely.

Now, let’s say we need to get across to the reader that the cashier is wondering why she didn’t buy apples. You could do that this way.

  • Correct: I walked to the grocery store and bought oranges. The heavy bag made my arm ache. The cashier looked at me, then said, “We have some fresh apples on sale too. Would you like some of those?”

Close third point of view is very similar, only it’s with the point of view character. Again, we’ll make that character Liz.

  • Incorrect: Liz walked to the grocery store and bought oranges. The heavy bag made her arm ache. The cashier looked at her and wondered why she didn’t buy apples too.
  • Correct: Liz walked to the grocery store and bought oranges. The heavy bag made her arm ache. The cashier looked at her, then said, “We have some fresh apples on sale too. Would you like some of those?

See the difference? If you have any other questions about point of view, since I know that was a lot, let me know in the comments below.

#7: Stay Away From Cliche Openings

The final tip I have for you all today is to stay away from cliche openings. Cliches in general should be avoided, at least directly. But some, done with a unique twist, are awesome; they didn’t become cliche for no reason! For example, the enemies to lovers trope is a cliche, but done right, it’s great.

However there are just some cliches that are too obvious, especially at your opening. Some of these are:

  • Opening with someone waking up (to an alarm clock, a text, the sun, an annoying parental figure, you name it).
  • “It was a dark and stormy night.”
  • Two love interests “bumping into” each other on their first meeting.
  • Crafting an exciting opening, just to have the character wake up and realize it’s a dream.
  • Having a character contemplating something, their life, recent events, etc.
  • A character admiring themselves in the mirror.

There are plenty of ways to avoid these cliches and still portray the information you need to get across. You can look up some ways to fix these cliches (and perhaps I’ll even write a post on it in the future) and have fun brainstorming new and creative ideas to do it.

I hope these tips will help you craft your first chapter! If you have any questions about these tips, or even just want to talk about writing or brainstorm, feel free to contact me or leave a comment and I’ll do my best to get back with you! God bless you all, and happy writing! ~ Kay Adelin

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