How to Write the First Chapter of a Novel
You can begin chapter one with an outline or nothing but ideas in your head -- but to write a novel, you add plot, setting, character, point of view and conflict. It's like baking cookies: You can lay out the ingredients ahead of time, but you need essentials, like butter and sugar, to make them good. Without these, no one will reach for that second cookie. Similarly, if you don't add essential elements to your first chapter, no one will read your second.
Plot, which are the events that make up a story -- is essential. Although much literary fiction focuses more on character than plot, you need action to hold your reader’s interest. Barbara Kingsolver's "Poisonwood Bible" is told from the perspectives of five female members of the Price family, but it is the family’s journey from the American South to the Belgian Congo that shapes the characters' experiences. As you write chapter one, ask yourself which events cause your characters' reactions and drive their thoughts -- and why the reader would find these interesting.
Establish the physical and chronological setting, the where and when the story takes place. Whether you make your setting vague, specific, based in reality or in fantasy, firmly ground your reader in the setting. In the "Poisonwood Bible," the setting of the Belgian Congo in the 1960s is essential to the story. Although Cormac McCarthy's setting in the post-apocalyptic novel "The Road" is vague, it orients the reader to a dismal setting besot with destroyed cities, abandoned houses and stores, and no electricity. Frank Herbert sets his science-fiction classic "Dune" on different planets that are more than 21,000 years in the future, but Herbert’s clear vision expertly guides the reader through his fantastical world. Whatever your setting, orient your readers in the first few pages.
Every good story needs a protagonist readers will care about. As Steven James of Writer's Digest points out, "If readers don’t care about your protagonist, they won’t care about your story, either." This doesn’t mean the character has to be perfect, or even nice. In Patrick Bateman, the psychotic, murdering protagonist of "American Psycho," Bret Easton Ellis proves that good writing can garner reader sympathy for even the most horrific character. Establish reader interest in your protagonist on page one. Describe your protagonist so readers will see themselves in him. Instill habits and character traits in him a reader will identify with. Paint him with a brush that shows his vulnerable side, as vulnerability will endear readers to him.
The Point of View
Every story needs a point of view, or someone to tell the story. You have several points of view from which to choose: objective, first person and third person. In the objective point of view, your narrator discloses the story's action and dialogue, but not the characters' thoughts and feelings. In first person narration, your narrator tells the story and is an active participant in it. In third person, the narrator does not participate in the story's action, but reveals the characters' feelings and thoughts. A narrator can be omniscient in which he sees or knows everything about every character, or he can be a limited omniscient narrator, whose perspective is limited to one or more, but not every, character. Establish your point of view immediately. If you're unsure which point of view to use, write your first chapter using one point of view and then rewrite it, using another. Keep trying a different point of view until you’ve found one that feels right.
Conflict and Resolution
Your character must face at least one source of conflict in the book, so lay the groundwork for conflict in the first chapter. Conflict can be internal or external -- or both -- but the conflict must demonstrate the character's ability or inability to change, which is key to the resolution. In F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby," the protagonist, Jay Gatsby, suffers internal conflict over his unrequited love for Daisy. The story's resolution shows Gatsby's inability to change, and Gatsby kills himself. In chapter one, Fitzgerald begins laying out this conflict subtly, yet masterfully. Attempt to do this in your first chapter.
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