Write a standout chapter 1

This post is part of Freshly Squeezed’s new competition, C1Blitz. Submit your chapter 1 for critiquing, by industry professionals (like me) and teenagers. See the website for details; entries close 3 March 2015.

Most of us are pretty time-poor these days. We spend so much time running around doing what we have to do that when we do get some precious relaxation time, we don’t want to waste it on a book that doesn’t grab us. While teenagers might not have the same time pressures that adults do, they have the same limited patience when it comes to reading. There’s so much else competing for a teenager’s attention that if you want them to stick with your book, you need to make your first chapter jump out at them.

A previous post on this blog, ‘What makes a good first page of your novel?’, covers similar ground, but when it comes to a whole chapter, you have more chances to get it wrong and lose the reader. For this post, I’ve chosen to base my tips on a first chapter that I think works well.

I recently finished reading A Simple Madness by Dianne Touchell (Allen & Unwin), and it held my attention from the very beginning; the first chapter was compelling, and introduced a story that delivered on the promise made in that first chapter. (If you haven’t yet read it, you should – it’s a brilliant cautionary tale for teenagers and parents alike, and a great example of a contemporary novel.) Below, I take you through the first chapter and outline what I believe it did right – what made me want to keep reading the book.

Write a strong first page

Touchell drops us into the middle of a pretty major milestone in Rose’s life.

He’d eaten an orange. His fingers were sticky with it and smelled strongly of that pith-muck that collects under your fingernails after peeling the rind off. She didn’t care – they were in love …’

The paragraph goes on to give the reader a little more detail, in such a straightforward, real way that I was immediately intrigued. The lesson: make your first page count. Surprise the reader. (See the blog post mentioned above for more on this.)

Begin in the right place

This milestone in Rose’s life is the beginning of the slippery slope of what is to come for Rose and her boyfriend Michael, and makes the perfect jumping-off point.

You don’t have to start at the beginning; sometimes starting near the end of the story can work well, too. Just make sure you begin in a place that gives the reader some insight into what is to come, without giving too much away.

Let the reader get to know your main character

Touchell gives us some details about Rose’s life, her relationship with Michael, and her best friend, Liv. She doesn’t go overboard, though; we are given just enough to let us begin to make a connection with Rose and to get a window into her life.

This is an important point. You must give the reader a reason to care about your main character. Why would you keep reading a book if you didn’t care what happened to the character?

Introduce a conflict

This was the clincher for me in A Small Madness; on the last page of the chapter we get an inkling of the trouble that might be on the way for Rose and Michael. We haven’t been plonked in the middle of a disaster, but we can see what might happen, and it’s a great teaser.

This is another important piece of the puzzle when you’re writing your chapter 1. You might give a taste of what’s to come, as Touchell did, or you might begin in the middle of a conflict or action related to that conflict (but make sure you put the action in context, so as not to confuse the reader). Whatever your approach, give an indication of a problem that the character is going to have to deal with.

Finish strong

The end of your chapter 1 is the jumping-off point for the rest of the book. Touchell deals with it by introducing a hint of a conflict, which works beautifully. You don’t have to do this, but the end of your chapter should be a satisfying conclusion (the chapter is almost a mini book in itself, if you think about it), and you must give the reader a reason to read on, to find out what happens next.

 

How are you going with your first chapter? Did any of these tips help you? Take your time and keep redrafting until you think you’ve written the most compelling chapter 1 that you’re capable of. Good luck!