Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Top Tips for 1st Chapters

I was following up on some recent comments on my "Top Tips" for writing blogs, when I realized something dire. Way back when, I promised my readers "My next blog will be tips for writing a great opening chapter..."

Well, there are several blogs after that one, and none of them are about tips of any kind. I'd lied. Although I didn't feel really, really, really guilty about my misstep, I knew I ought to fess up and put the situation right.

Except...I quickly realized that the likely reason I'd never done a post on opening chapters was because...I don't know how to write great opening chapters. How does an author, with just a short chapter's-worth of mere words, introduce a novel's characters, set the scene in time and place, begin the action, foreshadow the future, explain the past...and draw the reader into the story?

Beats me...

But it doesn't beat my fine friend and bestselling author, Cheryl Kaye Tardif. She graciously agreed to do not one, but TWO guest blogs on how to write gripping first chapters.

Thanks, Cheryl. You're a doll.

Creating a Gripping First Chapter: Part 1 - The Four Firsts

©2007 Cheryl Kaye Tardif

In fiction, suspense and foreshadowing create mood, tension and the desire to read more. You want your readers to be gradually drawn in to your story, reeled in by conflict and the need to see resolution. To accomplish this, consider The Four Firsts.

The Four Firsts: First sentence, First paragraph, First page and First chapter

First sentence: Make your first sentence count for something. Don’t start off describing the sky or field unless you can include something that will truly grip a reader.

A million stars twinkled in the sky and the moon hung full and white amidst them.

Does this sentence really grab you, make you want to know more, or tell you anything about the story? No. It’s a weak first sentence…boring.

On the night that Mary-Jane hung herself from the oak tree in her back yard, a million stars twinkled in the sky and the moon hung full and white amidst them.

How about now? Do you want to know why she hung herself? Who is Mary-Jane? Why did she hang herself outside? Maybe she didn’t. Maybe she was murdered. See how many thoughts come from that one sentence? You must toss out the bait to readers, then reel them in.

Introduce a character in the first paragraph―your main character if possible. Show us something about him or her. Give us a clue as to where this story is going. A study done a few years ago showed that most successful classic novels began with an interesting sentence containing a pronoun such as ‘he’, ‘she’ or ‘they’.

On the night that she hung herself from the oak tree in her back yard, a million stars twinkled in the sky and the moon hung full and white amidst them.

Now we REALLY want to know who she is. And we want to know why she hung herself.

A first sentence needs to grip your reader like a pit bull and not let go.

First paragraph: The first paragraph needs to reveal something, a hint of the plot. It might only be revealed in that first sentence. Introduce a challenge or conflict. Use the setting or weather to create mood, if appropriate, but stay focused on the character. You want to keep the reader there, in that moment. Be careful you don’t switch them out of the mood.

On the night that she hung herself from the oak tree in her back yard, a million stars twinkled in the sky and the moon hung full and white amidst them. The fields glistened from the evening rain. A storm had raged through and left everything soaked. The barn doors flapped in the restless wind.

While the description above is engaging, it takes the reader away from Mary-Jane. What you want to do is find a way to bring her back into the story so that the reader will want to know more. To know more, they have to keep reading.

On the night that she hung herself from the oak tree in her back yard, a million stars twinkled in the sky and the moon hung full and white amidst them. The fields glistened from the evening rain, as if Mary-Jane had wept a river of tears before slipping the rope around her neck. To the left of her limp body, the barn doors flapped in the restless wind.

Again, the reader is drawn into Mary-Jane’s life and there is a hint of torment and a visual that is vivid and emotional. You can almost see her body hanging from the tree.

If your first sentence is dialogue, make it gripping. The first paragraph rule then defaults to that line of dialogue plus the next paragraph or lines of dialogue. Make them count!

A first paragraph will draw you into the story and make you want to know more.

First page: The first page is the page that the average reader will read in a bookstore and judge your work on. Some readers will read it to determine if this is the next book they’ll read or buy, or if they’ll grab another one from the pile.

In fiction, your first page must have enough action, characterization, dialogue, humor, mystery, adventure or suspense to make the reader turn the next page. That is your goal. You will need to find your balance between narrative and dialogue and introduce a character by giving us some insight into him, her or it, or give us a glimpse of the plot―by foreshadowing or exposing the murder, love interest, humorous incident, adventure to come, etc. Give us at least one conflict―internal or external.

Remember, this is the beginning of your story. You will be introducing characters and then as the story progresses, you’ll develop these characters―their physical descriptions, voice, moods, back stories, relationships to other characters and motives (good or bad) for all their actions. Don’t do a description dump (full body/clothing description) as soon as you introduce a character. Keep your narrative short! Tell us only what we need to know at that time.

First chapter: Make the first chapter count by having enough action and dialogue to keep readers engaged. By the end of this first chapter, a reader should know a few things about the main character and possibly some things about the antagonist or a secondary character. Show us your character's flaws and weaknesses, and their strengths. We should care about your main character in some way. We should know that something is going to happen. We should sense conflict of emotion or external conflicts. Foreshadowing grabs a reader's attention. Keep in mind, the first chapter is your prologue, if you have one.

If you haven't successfully baited the trap or planted enough suspense in this first chapter, a reader is more likely to put the book down and walk away. There is a key element to preventing this. It's called a Chapter Hook, which I'll be explaining in a future post here. Happy writing!

Cheryl Kaye Tardif is a bestselling author who lives in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Her novels feature varying elements of suspense, from light mystery in Whale Song to her gripping techno-thriller The River to her paranormal thriller Divine Intervention. Her latest releases are Skeletons in the Closet & Other Creepy Stories and her award winning novelette Remote Control. Cheryl has also branched out into romance, under the pen name Cherish D'Angelo, and Cherish's debut romantic suspense Lancelot's Lady will be releasing on September 27th, 2010. http://www.cherylktardif.com and http://www.cherishdangelo.com

My October PopSyndicate KidLit 101 column will be a review of Cheryl's popular "Whale Song." Watch for it!http://www.popsyndicate.com/member/5042

Eileen Schuh,Canadian writer http://www.eileenschuh.com/


Cheryl Tardif said...

Thank you for featuring my article on The Four Firsts. I hope your readers find it helpful.


Eileen Schuh: said...

"It was a dark and stormy night..."
Thanks, Cheryl, for sharing. My favourite tip from above is using a pronoun for the character in the first sentence. What a powerful difference that makes. I'm going to remember that trick!

Unknown said...

Eileen, thanks so much for finding my blog and leaving a lovely comment. I'm happy to have followed you over here to find this excellent article. (You have a beautiful website, as well!)

@Cheryl ~ I enjoyed this informative article very much. As a short story writer transitioning to a novel, I've struggled with crafting a strong first chapter. Your insights have shed more light on the subject, and I look forward to the next three installments, to come.

Thanks to both of you!

Eileen Schuh: said...

Thanks for visiting, Nicole. I'm thrilled you found my blog helpful. I agree that Cheryl has great ideas.