The First Chapter: What It Should Do and How to Fix It

People often tell me I have a good narrative voice. I tend to write in First Person, and often, when I’m starting out a new book, I just let the character dictate the story. I’ve done this instinctively, and yet, when my draft is complete, I almost always have to dump that first chapter and rewrite. Why?
Writing Tip for Today: I read a fantastic post about this problem where the blogger called this Chapter One Problemfrontloading.” When you begin a new story, you’re probably bursting with ideas, excited to get down the who, the how and other explanations. Often, upon completion of the draft, you discover that this first effort either doesn’t reflect the novel’s larger premise (or PROMISE to the reader) or that it is stagnant with lots of telly narrative instead of action. Here are a few ways to remedy the First Chapter Frontloading Blues:

  • Axe the first chapter and rewrite without even reading your previous draft.
  • Axe the first chapter, and look to the second or third chapter for the “real” story’s beginning. Is this second/third chapter close enough to the “inciting incident” to become Chapter One?
  • Look for the Action. Is your first chapter laden with exposition or narrative telling? Do you feel impatient for the action (i.e., a scene) to begin?
  • Consider moving the beginning of the story to just before all heck breaks loose. Many times chapter one drafts are about getting to know characters, setting up back story, etc.
  • Axe all back story. Most readers are willing to forgo information for action.
  • Have someone read your first chapter. Does the reader come away from it with a solid idea of what kind of story it will be, what genre, etc? If not, rewrite that first chapter.
  • In the opening page or two, does the reader have a sense of who the main character will be, where the novel takes place, the time period and the general idea of the book’s theme, premise or struggle?

Try This! In one sentence, describe a scene from the first chapter of your WIP. Now, without looking at what’s already written, rewrite that scene.

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About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

5 comments on “The First Chapter: What It Should Do and How to Fix It

  1. Thanks, Linda!

    I just had to do what you’re talking about. I had to look at chapters two and three, then re-organize them to give a clear idea of the story, and bring the conflict in right away.

    Hope I don’t have to do that again!

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