Thursday, January 7, 2010

First of Firsts

It's the first post in the first month in the first year of a new decade.

It's a great time to talk about first chapters!

Working with our blog contest winners, Steena and AmyKated (who are unbelievably great sports!) got me to thinking—what makes a great first chapter? What elements do you think it needs?

I'm still pretty nervous about the first chapter of my WIP. I don't know if I'll ever be truly satisfied, but these days I'm too busy trying to complete the endless revision (or re-envisioning to be precise, since it's pretty much a total re-write) to focus. But once I begin polishing, I'm sure I'll be right back to obsessing over my first chapter.

So what about you? What elements do you think will hook a reader? I write YA, so my genre has its own unique conventions. I'm interesting in your opinions.

Oh, and Happy New Year!


  1. For me, I like to be connected to the character in the first chapter. I don't necessarily care about action that much, but I want to think, "Oh, now I /get/ this person and see where this is going."

    You know? So for me, it's about the character first.

  2. I agree with Elana. characters are the most important. You want to bond to the characters and care about them enough to move on.

    I, too have first chapter troubles. Beginnings are so hard for me.

    Good luck on your project!

  3. Good point, Elana. I think "setting up the stakes" is key in the first chapter.

    Kimberly—welcome to my humble blog. Yep, loving the character is essential or why read on?

    1. Liking the character is so important. Why would you want to read the book if the character is distasteful to you. Doesn't make sense to invest inthe time to read it.

  4. Since I'm working on my first chapter right now (thanks to the Cuda's) I'll have to say that I'm realizing just how important characters are compared to the action. Before winning the Cuda's critique I had already sliced and diced my chapter way too many times to count - only to realize that my 'ideas' in the first few revisions were more on target than my last versions.

    Anyways ... you guys are awesome ;)

  5. I want an interesting character and a question - or some sense that something interesting will happen soon. I rewrite my first chapters compulsively.

  6. Surprise, fast paced, definitely an afinity to the characters. Questions are good too. They beg answers. A lot of things can hook me.

  7. Thanks for the nod, Brave Steena! Very good thoughts, Deb and Nisa.

  8. I think its connection to the characters, the "Hmm...what's gonn happen next?" factor, pacing and something interesting that manage to hook me

  9. I love a great first line. Something that grabs you but refrains from the cliche.

  10. I agree, Cole, and those always seem to elude me!

  11. Tension, a hook and relating with your character. =)

  12. Thanks, Carolyn. Looks like we have three essential ingredients so far:

    1) A great likable character
    2) Tension
    3) A hook, or what if, what happens next?

    Hmmm.. gotta go make sure I have all that. This is going to come in handy when I peek through my fingers at that first chapter! Thanks everyone!

  13. Or not necessary "likable" character -- an intriguing character. I think the likability factor is way overrated. I want a character that's challenging and intriguing ... And some of my favorites are ones that grow on me ... that initially I'm pretty up-in-the-air about.
    AND ... first chapter musts:
    There's got to be conflict ... somehow ... that sets up the major arc of the novel.

    I think! But I'm revision queen myself. Lisa can attest to that!

  14. True Heidi..intriguing. But likability comes in many flavors. You've certainly proven that! And you ARE the revision queen for sure. Remember, no one writes a good first draft except our dear Christine Johnson, and even she has to tweak.

    Glad you're on a roll.

  15. I agree with Elana. I have to connect with the main character. If not, it just doesn't hook me. Of course I also like a good cliffhanger beginning where I'm really sure what's going on but it's crazy cool and I HAVE to keep reading.

    Good luck with your re-write. I know too well how that goes!

    Happy Weekend,

  16. Good question, Lisa!

    I'm pondering the differences between MG first chappies and YA first chappers, since I write for the mighty 12yr old who wants to be grabbed and propelled through every page without stopping (I indulge in the occasional YA to see what's ahead of me when I grow up)... seems to me I learned something about these first beasties way, way back when I started my novel. I'm on my 529th draft of chapter 1, and all because of that darn lesson. Apparently I have to establish my MC's core need, engender sympathy for him, include things my reader can relate to in my character, set the scene or do some tricky world building so you know where he is and when (why oh why do I write fantasy?), I have to describe my characters without having them look in mirrors, ponds or at reflective surfaces, including the antagonists eyeballs, (challenging) as well as clue everyone in on their age and what they ate for breakfast.

    A pretty tall order, though I think you can skip the breakfast info if you find it tough to fit it in.

    I think I prefer the brevity of your 3 point list. Draft 530 may be the ONE, folks!

  17. Pippa dear, have I told you lately how much I love you?

    You will get it and we Cudas are always ready, jaws open wide for a tasty chomp!

  18. I'm compulsive about first chapters - they've ruined reading for me. I have to dissect and reread every one. For me, it might be an intriguing character or an interesting premise or being drawn into a setting that makes the first chapter. I think any of them will work as long as the reader WANTS TO KNOW MORE. I've been criticized often enough to know that the reader has to want to know something about a place or person or premise BEFORE the action begins. Otherwise, who cares about blood dripping in the dark? People get murdered by rampaging vampires every day...

  19. Thanks, Cyndy. Think how many *happy* hours we've spent with our teeth buried in each other's first chapters. Usually, when we are through, only the bones remain. But we get there, eventually!

  20. I'm your "aveage" reader who enjoys fiction and non-fiction.

    To me, the first impression of the main character is foremost. I have to empathize, not necessarily like them.

    Wondering where the author is going with the story line is important and I love to be surprised at the outcome.

  21. Please everybody say a prayer, no say a lot of prayers for the people of Haiti who are suffering as a result of this horrific tragedy.

    We are waiting to hear that our friend Lil and her husband is OK.

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