Rewriting Chapter One

In the last few posts we’ve gone through “big picture” rewriting and the smaller stuff. Perhaps you’ve gone through these revisions multiple times (hurray for you!). One of the last rewrites I usually tackle is my opening: chapter one.

Writing Tip for Today: Let’s talk about tips for shining up your novel’s opening in chapter one:

Basic Elements

Your reader steps into your fictional world. What does that reader need to know right away? Identify the narrator or Point of View character as soon as you can. Readers usually have little patience for disembodied voices or explanatory text. They want (and need) a character to identify with, be curious about or in some way want to follow.

The story’s time and place will be vital too. Establish these as soon as possible—readers who become confused as to when or where they are often become nonreaders. Depending on your story, at least give a general time frame, such as contemporary, historical or futuristic. Place can lend richness and become a character in the story, making the setting an important element in any opening.

If you write in first-person, the “I” voice, the character’s way of narrating may be enough to identify the narrator—that’s why it’s so important to lead with a strong, unique character voice. My personal preference is not to allow your novel’s first line to be dialogue—readers will have to reread the dialogue after they’ve read on to see who’s speaking.

How Much Back Story?

Many writers either dread or embrace back story as a way to flesh out the set-up. If you find that you take up more than a sentence here or there with back story on your first page, one of two things may be happening. Either you need to write a more three-dimensional character, or your back story may be more interesting than the real time story.

Here’s where I plug the good old Rule of Three and Cold Mashed Potatoes Rules. The Rule of Three is a guide. Avoid writing more than three consecutive sentences of back story, especially in your opening. The Cold Mashed Potatoes idea is that the longer you remain in back story, the more readers will forget the real time scene. In chapter one, readers are still getting the set-up. Confusion invades when back story doesn’t allow readers to fully get on board with that set-up.

Back story shines best when it informs the character in the present scene. Back story can lend crucial details to a character’s motivations, goals and obstacles. Instead of launching into the complete back story all at once, use little snips of it to help readers understand the stakes for the character and why he/she does what he/she does.

An agent told me, “On the first page I want to laugh and cry at least once.”

I’ve Got a Feeling  

The single most important way to pull readers into your story is through emotion. In real life, we often want things and if they don’t materialize, we say, “Oh well.” Convey a character like this and readers conclude that the character doesn’t care enough, so why should they? Imbue every sentence of your opening with feeling. This helps your character appear more unique as well as compelling.

You don’t want to write melodrama, but a character who is passionate about a story goal draws readers in. This character doesn’t give up. Explore your character’s inner life and motives by writing a letter from the character to you. You probably won’t use much of this letter, but it will help you telegraph those emotions into your chapter. You can learn how your character reacts, the kinds of decisions he/she makes and what qualities the character either possess or learns.

I once had an agent who said, “In a novel’s first page, I want to laugh and cry at least once.” A compelling chapter one will elicit strong emotions that serve as gut punches. If your opening captures readers emotionally, they will be more likely to stick around. Here are a couple of free pdfs to help you rewrite:

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.

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