I recently read a writing-advice column that argued that first chapters were always and necessarily boring. The column-writer never did explain why, if that were true, anyone would ever read the first chapter, or stick with a book long enough for it to get interesting, but he did give a couple of reasons why he thought this: because in the first chapter, the reader doesn’t care about the hero, because the action is relatively weak and/or meaningless, because there’s too much telling and too much backstory.
The solutions provided were the same old tired ones: start with “strong action” (what’s that supposed to be?), make the backstory unique and fascinating (how?), make the character interesting (again, how?). There’s just one problem: as described, these “solutions” don’t work, because they are each addressing a specific problem area that may not be a problem in any one particular story.
The column-writer was entirely correct in saying that the first chapter is vitally important and deserves a lot of attention. I will go so far as to say that a boring first chapter is a major flaw that must be addressed. I just wouldn’t go about writing it – or fixing it – the way he recommended. Which got me thinking about what I would do…which led me to start this series of posts.
Let’s start by considering why Chapter One is so important. 99.9% of writing-advice books and blogs on the subject will tell you that Chapter One is important because Chapter One is where you sell the editor and hook the reader. I disagree. Oh, selling the editor and hooking the reader happen in Chapter One, but that’s not what makes Chapter One vitally important.
What makes Chapter One important is that it lays the foundation on which you build the rest of the story.
Take another look at the three symptoms that writing column mentioned: 1) The reader doesn’t care about the character, 2) The action is weak and/or meaningless, and 3) There’s too much telling and backstory. Basically, this means that there is something wrong with one or more of the three basic areas of storytelling: 1) the characterization, 2) the plot, or 3) the background/backstory. Getting one of these wrong at the start of the story is like getting the cement blocks in the foundation of a house laid in crooked or uneven or out of true. If the error is too big, the house won’t stand up; if it’s not so big, the house will stand up, but it will be crooked or the floors won’t be level or there will be other problems.
Depending on what kind of writer you are, you have several choices regarding Chapter One: 1) You can write it and rewrite it until you are really, really sure you have it right (because you are the kind of writer who can’t write the rest of the story until you are absolutely sure the foundation is all there); 2) You can write something that you think is right, continue on, and periodically come back and fiddle with it as the story progresses and you realize that this or that bit is out of whack (because you are the kind of writer who can revise the early bits without getting stuck in an eternal-revisions loop, and you need to have more of the story written before you know what you need in Chapter One); 3) You can write a Chapter One and leave it alone until the whole story is finished, then come back and revise it when you really know what it needs; or 4) You can write a chapter that you are sure is right, finish the book, and then delete the first chapter or two because they have turned out to be scaffolding – stuff you needed to write in order to get started, but not stuff that actually needs to be in the finished story.
If you have a scaffolding-type process, the only difference between what you do and what I’m advising for everybody else is, you need to take down the scaffolding first. That is, finish the story, erase the scaffolding chapters (or snip them and put them in some other file, if you aren’t brave or think you may need bits of them later), renumber your chapters, and then start in on the stuff below. There is no point in analyzing your first chapter if you are going to end up opening with Chapter Three. (And you would be amazed by the number of people who don’t think of this, and spend weeks or months polishing their “Chapter One” before it dawns on them that it is wasted effort.)
So you have a real Chapter One and you are ready to revise. The first think I’d do is look at the rest of the story. If the rest of the story isn’t written yet, write it. This helps on two counts: first, it allows you to look at the first chapter in context (some of the stuff you thought had to be in Chapter One may be obviously unnecessary once the whole story is written, or some of the stuff you were expecting to cut may turn out to be vital); second, writing the rest of the story gives you a novel’s worth of writing practice, so that when you come back to fix Chapter One, you will have more skills and be better able to implement whatever fixes you decide are needed.
If you are a #1-type writer – if you had to get Chapter One absolutely perfect before you went on to finish the rest of the book, fine. Trust me, by the time you finish an entire novel, Chapter One won’t look nearly so perfect any more, and you will find plenty of things to fix. Even if it is your nineteenth or twentieth novel.
Back to revising Chapter One. The first thing you need to know is that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to a problematic first chapter, because whether you start with a battle, a tense political confrontation, an impossible-love-at-first-sight moment, or a murder, there are going to be readers who find the chapter boring, simply because you are signaling a kind of story that they are not particularly interested in reading. An “interesting” character is only going to be interesting to some readers; ditto the “fascinating and unique” backstory.
What you really don’t want to do is write a chapter that will alienate the readers who will like this kind of story. So you begin by looking at the whole story because context is important. Things like who the main character is and what the viewpoint is and what sort of story the author is telling and where it is going all affect what you can and cannot pull off in Chapter One.
So the first question is: Does Chapter One fit the rest of the story, or does it give a false impression of what the story is and where it is going? Could you just lop it off and open with Chapter Two? (It is useful to ask this even if you think you are not a #4-type writer; unintentional scaffolding happens at least once to nearly everybody.) Once you are clear about what kind of story you have in hand, you can look for – and hopefully address – some of the other specific problems, but you address them in whatever way fits the story you are telling.
Next post, I am going to start going through those three specific problem areas, one at a time.