Lesson #47: The First Chapter

Not only am I a writer but I am a rabid reader. I mean, rabies detectors clang when I pass by. Which means I am not going to waste my precious limited reading time on a book that doesn’t pull me in right away.

 

Ain’t nobody got no time for that.

 

So, make sure you have a flash-bang first sentence and a first chapter where things happen. There. Done. Next lesson…

 

JUST KIDDING!

 

My dog is reading over my shoulder asking, “how do ya do that?” Well, let me tell you so I don’t have to keep smelling his odiferous breath.

 

What NOT to do:

 

            Many new writers are stricken with the insatiable urge to back up and ‘splain everything. There may be a flash-bang first sentence, but then we go back to when the character was six years old and he was traumatized over time because his step-mother refused to replace his toothbrush every six months causing his brush to grow mold. On top of it, we learn said step-mother held a fire hose to his head threatening him to brush his teeth with the fuzzy green toothbrush. Our hero (or villain) seethes with resentment and by the time our story begins, severe-bunned women wielding toothbrushes and/or fire hoses trigger him thus causing a serial killer pattern of behavior.

 

Yawn.

 

No one wants to fall out of the story and read a psychological analysis of the main character, they want to know what happens now that the body is discovered! They want to know what happens next!

 

So the don’t here is, don’t flood the first chapter with backstory. No one cares yet. Really. They don’t. It’s okay. Let the story unfold, about 30 pages or so, and then you can sprinkle backstory in like you sprinkle seasoning in a casserole or soup. You want just the right amount, dispersed nicely in every bite.

 

Another way to disinterest your reader is write in strict narrative. Telling vs. showing. Using passive voice.  Let me demonstrate.

 

The day was bright with sun as Cody and Cheyenne were bored. Nothing interesting happened in their pathetic neighborhood for a good while, and Cody decided it was about time something rather interesting should happen. A malevolent plan was explained by Cody to Cheyenne. The plan was to remove the heads from all the neighbors’ lawn sprinklers thus causing streams of water to shoot in the sky like rockets when people watered their lawns.

 

Somebody stop me!

 

Very telling and very passive. Passive voice is putting the subject in the object’s place. Subjects do the action. Objects receive the action. Make sure your subject is a doer. Do! Do! Do!

I should’ve dropped in on Cody and Cheyenne cackling in glee, a pile of sprinkler heads behind them as the neighbor runs around her yard screeching in dismay.

 

To sum it up, don’t be boring.

 

So what are you supposed to do instead?

 

Start off a really great chapter with a really great sentence. It doesn’t have to be a huge plot reveal, or even be littered with dead bodies. It just has to be interesting. Don’t be Snoopy. No ‘dark and stormy nights’.

 

Here are some interesting first lines:

 

When a high powered rifle bullet hits living flesh it makes a distinctive–pow-WHOP–sound that is unmistakable even at a tremendous distance.  C.J. Box Open Season

 

Nate Romanowski knew trouble was on the way when he saw the falcon’s wings suddenly flare in the distance     C.J. Box  – Off the Grid

 

 

What I want you to note is that these first sentences clue us in that something is awry. We want to read on and discover more. I am sure you can guess the genre here. Let’s take a look at a different genre to see what those authors do.

 

“I forbid you to go!” Spittle flew from Adam Fletcher’s mouth, his face a mottled red.   Kim Woodhouse & Tracie Peterson Beyond the Silence

 

            Huston, we’ve got spit! This is historical romantic suspense. The first line sets off the conflict and the first chapter SHOWS us the conflict, which kicks us into the story.

 

One more. My first sentence from SPIN: Kisrie Kelley counted pencils impaled in the ceiling—six. Yesterday it was three.

 

Something shifted in Kisrie’s universe. My book is contemporary YA. No dead bodies or spit. But there is a shift in status quo. Foreshadowing an inciting incident yet to come.

 

Beyond the first sentence.

 

I hope it’s clear that the first sentence needs to alert the reader that all is not well in the storyverse. In addition to SHOWING the conflict, you have to SHOW us who the characters are thought dialogue, body language and behavior. You show us in that ordinary world setting before it blows up. And something has to go wrong, even if it’s not the true inciting incident. Things need to be on a fast spiral toward the ultimate world-shattering explosion in chapter one. No one wants to read about kittens at a picnic unless a grizzly bear looms behind a gooseberry bush, tummy a-rumble.

 

When you finish the first chapter, you need to leave your reader desperate to turn the page. Don’t let it be a stopping point to take a potty break, or shut off the light to go to sleep. Drop out with a question or conflict. I love this principle that Kim teaches – drop in late, leave early. Each. And. Every. Scene. And. Chapter. That is how you keep the tension high.

 

RUE resist the urge to explain. Keep the action rolling in that first chapter.

 

Now, grab your computer and get going. Boring the reader is a crime.

 

With pen to paper,

Darcie

 

 

 

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