I started a new project, Sleeping in Cyberspace, and this is the only first draft I’ve attempted to really write in about a year. I’ve learned so much about my writing style since then, this draft is both trying new things and exploring old things. Since it’s guaranteed to be a whole new learning experience, I’m going to blog through every step of it.
The other day, I shared my first chapter, and if I’m totally honest, I’m pretty proud of that chapter, for a couple of different reasons. Mostly, it feels like a stronger beginning than most of my beginnings do, although it probably needs work (it is a first draft after all).
I know from other things I’ve read and some Writing Excuses episodes that one of the biggest things first chapters need to do is, well, introduce the story. Not just be a beginning (although obviously they do that, too), but let the reader know exactly what kind of story they’re reading. What genre is the story? What is the tone? Is it dark? Is it humorous? Is it lighthearted and cheery?
It’s like a promise. You’re promising the reader what kind of story it’ll be, based on what they read here. If your first chapter is funny, you’re basically promising the entire story will be funny.
Another thing that first chapters should do is, well, interest the readers and make them read chapter two.
When I was writing the chapter, I knew I was writing sci-fi, and I knew the plot was a heist. I knew that a big part of the story is the relationship between my three main characters. I also knew that I was more or less following the three act structure, and like the first part of that is “ordinary world”. In other words, I have to show the readers what “normal” is for them, because in the next few chapters, I’m going to totally wreck the mundane. (Even if it’s a heist, I am following some of the Hero’s Journey structure, and so yeah, they do basically get their whole world wrecked.)
So from there, I had to figure out what I wanted to start the story with that would let the reader know all of this, right from the start. I had the idea that the first chapter needed to be a mini-heist—hence promising more heist later on—and also starting the story off with action, thus fulfilling the “in late, out early” idea. At the same time, it shows what’s “normal”—Ceveth knows exactly what he’s doing and never once is he uncertain about it—and yet he’s nervous about being caught by his older brother, even as his sister tries to pressure him into being faster, which introduces both the characters and the relationships they have with each other.
Keeping the right tone was fairly easily, although that’s mostly because pretty much every single piece of my writing has a similar tone. I haven’t figured out how to explore with different tones yet.
There are a couple of things I didn’t introduce here. For example, I don’t know that anybody could guess this was a Sleeping Beauty retelling simply by the chapter alone. And then, there are a few things, such as Izioth, that I mentioned, but didn’t describe—and other things I didn’t mention at all. There’s another important character, but she won’t even be introduced until chapter three or four, I think.
Not everything needs to be introduced in chapter one. Not even the inciting incident necessarily has to happen in chapter one. (Mine happens probably in chapter four.) Of course, ‘in late, out early’ might disagree with me, but how “late” a story is started I think depends on the individual story (and probably who’s writing it). Although it’s certainly possible that maybe further along the lines, I’ll decide I started the story too early and I need to cut the first few chapters, right now, I don’t think I did. I think this is where the story needed to start. Because it introduces just enough for the reader to know what the story is about, without info dumping with too much.
I think that’s what a first chapter is all about. Get me interested, and tell me just enough that I’m not lost and that I’ll keep reading and go to chapter two. And be aware that chapter one sets up expectations—those are the promises—that have to be fulfilled, or else readers’ll be disappointed.