Monday, July 18, 2011

Drawing the Reader or the Agent/Editor In – How does your first chapter measure up?

First, I want to apologize to my fellow Project Mayhemers for not being around much the past few months. I’ve been finishing a draft of my new sci fi/fantasy story and it’s taken me way longer than I originally planned. Now that it’s done, I’m contemplating what needs to be tweaked. That led me to the idea for this post, along with the knowledge that I need to get my first chapter to work and work well. Avid readers will give books a chance to develop their stories, but busy/not so avid readers often need to be pulled in by page ten or so to be convinced to read on. Tastes are different though; some readers are pulled in by character while others need the plot to hook them. Finding the balance to appeal to both sorts of readers is the real challenge.

Very accomplished writers can get away with just plot or character in the first few pages if the writing is so compelling you have to keep reading. Margaret Peterson Haddix’s FOUND is a good example. The main character isn’t even in the first chapter, and Peterson breaks an unspoken rule by using the point of view of an adult character, but those pages are so spooky, I couldn’t stop reading.

THE PENDERWICKS by Jeanne Birdsall goes to the other extreme. The first chapter of it focuses almost solely on character development, drawing the reader right into the Penderwick family with all their various personalities. There is one tiny hint about a ‘surprise’ and we know the sisters are on their way to a place called Arundel. Once they get there, one of them glimpes a boy in the window, but that’s about the extent of the plot development. At that point, I was so interested in the characters though, I didn't really care that I couldn't begin to guess what the story would involve.

At first glance, plot appears to be the easier way to hook readers. It would seem if you make the story exciting, people will keep reading. But not everyone can pull it off like Haddix did. There was a book I tried to read last year which opens with a scene of a family in extreme danger. I think al l the family members were trapped in cages swinging over a giant chasm or something and they were all about to fall or be eaten by some monster or burned up or something. As you can probably tell, the story didn’t work for me. Even though it should have been scary, it wasn’t really, and since I didn’t know anything about the characters beyond their names and ages, I didn’t care they were in mortal peril. I assume they escaped the impending doom, because it would have been a short book otherwise, but I can’t say for sure because I stopped reading.

So if readers need character development as well as plot, what do we need exactly? For me, I need to find something sympathetic about the main character, either some vulnerability, or a hint that they have an interesting or quirky personality or way of looking at the world. If something about the character makes me smile, so much the better. I know not every book could or should have touches of humor, but it can add just enough to some stories to make me keep reading.

After studying many, many first chapters or first ten pages of books I like, I’ve come up with a series of questions to help me get my own first pages to work.

1. What do I know about the main character?

2. From what I know, does that information make him or her seem interesting, funny, or slightly out of the ordinary?

3. What hint is given about the main plot?

4. If there isn’t a hint about the main plot, is there at least a question I want answered that makes me want to read on?

These are my questions, but I’ll throw this open. Any other tips you would like to share on what makes first chapters work for you? Are there any books that you can recommend with particularly well-written first pages?

~ Dee Garretson


  1. These are great questions! I think I also want to know something about the setting - time or place where the story takes place . Not in great detail, but just something to anchor the story for me.

  2. Hmmm. This is a good analysis of what questions you may need to answer for that first chapter to be interesting. The thing is the is all subjective. That is, it depends on whether or not the reader will find it interesting. And as a reader, what I find interesting will probably irritate you. Luck of the draw I guess...

  3. The best thing I've learned is the first few pages, not just the chapter, but the first few pages have to begin with a bang. And when I say bang, I don't mean it has to be an explosion like no other! A "bang" can be quiet and subtle. It just has to be there! :)

  4. Great analysis, Dee. I think that character is the best way to hook a reader, but I also think it helps to ground them in the scene through some kind of idea of the setting, and maybe a hint as to the plot. It can be subtle, and it's hard to pull all of it off at once, but it's great when it works.

  5. For me, when I find the "right" place to start the story, then it becomes easy to decide the "right" way to introduce it.

    In one novel I wrote, I kept having to go back and refer to an event throughout the book. Upon revising, I realized that the event in question needed to be the very beginning of the book, so I wouldn't have to keep flashing back to it. The event was the True Beginning of the story.

    Very thought-provoking post.


  6. Great post, Dee. I agree that you need to be introduced to some authentic characters who you care about in the beginning, but for me it's all about that hook--that concept. I want to see it in the opening chapter(s) because when something compelling nails me as a reader, it's like the tasers have jabbed into my sense of intrigue and have shocked me to the point where I can't move. And don't want to move. I just want to sit and read.

    A couple of examples would be (1) the Prologue of EMERALD ATLAS, and (2)the opening chapters of MAZE RUNNER.

  7. Great list of questions -- and since I'm revising the opening chapter or so of my book, very timely for me.

    One thing I think is especially important is a great first line, first paragraph. If I find a book with that much, I'll give it the benefit of the doubt for many more pages.

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  9. Great list of questions, Dee!!

    I think Across the Universe by Beth Revis has an excellent first chapter.

  10. Ooh, yes. That's a GREAT example, Paul.

  11. Glad to see you back! Character is essential, I think! Who cares what "exciting" things are happening if you don't feel something for the characters?

  12. Thanks for all the great comments everyone. I'm definitely going to check out these recommendations.


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!