Writing the opening chapter of a novel is like starting the first sentence of a blog post: it’s all about the hook. You, the reader, will only keep reading, if I have grabbed your attention and given you a hint that contained below is something you might want to find out about. I’ve written eight novels to date, so you would think I would know by now how to compose the enticing first pages of a book. Here’s why I have failed.
This morning, dawning in my mind as I set to work on two works-in-progress is that they share the same problem. Both are set in the same location, both involve the protagonist arriving at that location from elsewhere, and both have draft first chapters that I now consider to be rubbish. How could I have managed to fall into every trap a novice writer falls into when they have no guidance or training or skills or experience? How have I managed to draft two first chapters, each with smooth prose and charming segues, that are packed with backstory and reflection, and lack conflict and an intriguing question? These are the four basic rules of crafting a first chapter and I have somehow forgotten them. A first chapter should be: light on backstory and reflection; contain a small conflict that reveals something about the character and what the story is about; and include some sort of intrigue or hook that keeps the reader turning the page.
I’m an embarrassment to myself. Before I started writing this post, I had to soothe my ego with comforting platitudes. There is so much to writing a novel that it is easy to overlook one element. All writers agonise over the first chapter and the story set up in general. What to tell, what to hold back, what order to reveal the backstory, what the reader needs to know upfront and above all, how to create a good beginning, these matters plague all authors. I wasn’t comforted. There had to be something about my approach to writing that is flawed.
I decided that I have overlooked the obvious rules of first-chapter composition because I am a pantser, not a plotter. I would call the ‘rubbish first chapter’ the curse of pantsing. Here’s why.
When an author writes as I do with the barest minimum of plot, flowing with their own creativity stream of consciousness style, allowing characters to form themselves and plot points to emerge naturally, allowing the narrator to take control, the result can be a mishmash. As the story develops, the writer can contain all the elements within and funnel the story in a logical fashion, directing their own outpourings and creating order. For example, the writer will recognise when a scene belongs in another spot. I find pantsing an enjoyable approach to writing and once I’m in the flow, me as writer and me as narrator merge and the story unfolds smoothly.
This sense of unity does not exist initially. At the beginnings of the story the writer is tentative and the narrator equally so. Neither knows yet what the backstory will be. Characters are yet to fully form. Sometimes, a unity forms very quickly and the first chapter ticks all the boxes without any effort. Other times, backstory collides with the present and as the character begins to form they tell the narrator who they are, which ends up as a lot of reflection. A tentative beginning will jump around a lot as the narrator starts to find their way. At this stage the protagonist can have far too much control of the story, rather like that annoyingly egocentric guy at a party who drones on and on about himself and the things he’s done and the people he knows. He thinks he is being entertaining. No one else does. This problem of protagonist dominance will arise more strongly with first-person narratives. The challenge for the writer is to force the protagonist to become a narrator, not an egomaniac eager to tell the reader all about himself.
In other words, for pantsers, the first chapter is more like an emergence of the sorts of elements the plotter would have had all figured out in a neat character bio.
Having just recognised that two of my works in progress are suffering from this same issue, I wanted to tease out the cause and share, as we are none of us too experienced to learn and sometimes we have to re-learn what we already know.
Fortunately, one of my works in progress is barely written and I can see straight away that the matter is easily fixed. The other work is almost completely composed and unpacking the narrative and restructuring the early part of the work feels like a chore. Yet it has to be done if I want anyone to read the finished work.