Happy Friday the 13th, one of my favorite days of the year! How perfect that this one falls in one of the spookiest months! I almost wish that today’s topic could be something spooky to fall in with the theme, but alas, we have no time for a thematic post. Still, I think you’ll all enjoy today’s topic, which is how to write a kick ass first page and first chapter! If you haven’t read any of the other “31 Days of NaNoWriMo Prep” blog posts, you can check them out here, or you can go watch the corresponding YouTube videos here. We’ve been talking about a lot of great writing topics so far, so I highly recommend you catch up if you aren’t already.
So, why do the first page and chapter have to be kick ass? Well, these are what hook the reader. I’m sure you’ve heard of a hook before, be it in school or some writing workshop. If not, the quick definition is this: A hook is what grabs and holds a reader’s attention. If you’re able to hook the reader, then you ensure that they’ll keep reading, at least for a little while. If you hook them with the first page, they’ll most likely keep reading to the end of the chapter. If you hook them with the first chapter, they’ll most likely continue reading your book to completion. The first page and first chapter are what readers use to decide if yours is a novel they want to buy. I mean, a good back cover copy (something we’ll talk about later this month) is great, but there’s rarely a reader who’ll buy a book without cracking it open and giving it a quick skim. This means your first page and first chapter are doing a lot of heavy lifting in order to get your novel off of the shelves.
Now that I’ve hyped up the importance of the first page and chapter, you’re probably wondering how you could ever write something that can bear the weight of such a crucial task. The truth is, your first draft isn’t going to be able to bear that weight at all. If I told you how many times I rewrote the first chapter–much less the first page–of my (not yet published) novel The Forbidden Prophecy, you’d be amazed. I feel pretty confident that it’s where it needs to be now, but it took a lot of work. In NaNoWriMo, though, you don’t have time to rework the first chapter until it’s perfect. You may not even know where the first chapter ends and where the second begins yet, and that’s okay. During the next month, your only job is to write. To get those words out without worrying about whether you’re spewing out a masterpiece or a hot mess.
“So then Leighton, why are you even bothering to teach me about this if it won’t matter?” you ask, and I answer with this: Because it can’t hurt, right? At least if you know what you should be aiming for when writing a first page and chapter, then you’ll have less to edit and rewrite once the month is over. It’s sort of like an outline. It’ll keep you on track (for the most part) and hopefully start your month out with a little bit of confidence.
With that said, let’s get into it. The first thing you should do when working on the very first page is try to make the first line one that hooks the reader right away. If you can hook the reader right away, that’s half the battle right there. My first attempt at a hook was subpar at best:
Cas had known he was different since he was thirteen years old.
I mean, it’s not bad. The problem is that it’s generic. The rest of that first page had been pretty damn generic, too. I guess that’s what you get with a generic first line; a generic first page. My new first line goes a little something like this:
My head felt like it was about to explode.
It isn’t earth-shattering, but at least it sets a scene that I was then able to build upon, and it also creates a greater sense of curiosity in the reader. The first one did nothing except set up exposition, which is the last thing you want to start your novel off with. Which leads me to my next bit of advice.
Start in the action. I don’t mean that you have to start in an action scene, with guns blazing and fists flying. I mean, you can do that, but if you do you’ve got to remember that the rest of your novel has to then meet the expectations you’ve set for your reader. Starting in an action scene leads the reader to believe that the rest of the novel is going to be jam-packed with even greater, more exciting action scenes than the one you set the novel up with. If you don’t deliver, you’ll have some very unhappy readers. But I digress.
What I mean when I say “start in the action” is that you should start with something dramatic. If you’re writing a romance novel, maybe you could start with a bad breakup. If you’re writing a contemporary novel, you could start with the main character learning that their life is changing in some way. Some people say that starting with dialogue isn’t great because it leaves the reader confused from the very beginning, wondering who is speaking and why they should care. Personally, I think dialogue can be a dynamic way to kick off a first chapter, if done well. It has to be a line of dialogue that sets up the action you’re introducing, and you need to give the reader instant payoff (meaning you have to tell them right away who is speaking and why they should care about the speaker).
The most important thing to remember about starting in the action is that you can’t worry about setting things up before you get into the action. Backstory and exposition can be explained later, or even sprinkled in during the action. Instead of telling the reader, “They had been together for six months”, you could have a character say something like, “Seriously, Jason? After six months together you break up with me over a stupid text?” It’s dynamic, it adds tension and drama… It’s action. Setting the scene can also be done while describing the action. Have the characters use the setting. Have them lean against a locker or drink from the water fountain if you’re setting it up that they’re in a school hallway. Describing a character can happen in the same way. Have them run their hand through their blond hair or chew on their short, frequently-abused nails. All of this will keep the reader from becoming bored.
This also provides a great transition into my next tip: Introduce the protagonist. Have you ever read a first chapter where the main character isn’t introduced right away? It’s a little weird, and definitely off-putting to a reader. A main character is who the story will be following, after all, and so how can a reader know they’ll like the novel if they don’t even know who they’re expected to root for? Of course, some authors have gotten away with ignoring their main character until chapter two. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s (Philosopher’s) Stone, for example, goes a whole chapter before Harry is introduced… Well, I mean, he’s technically introduced in chapter one, but he’s a sleeping baby, so I don’t think that really counts. Harry Potter books are a little different, though, because their first chapters almost always act as prologues, in a way, without ever actually being called prologues.
My final piece of advice is to end the chapter with a cliffhanger. It doesn’t have to be a crazy suspenseful one, where your character is literally dangling off of a cliff–again, you could do this, but you don’t have to. It just needs to be something that gives the reader incentive to keep reading.
Keep all of this in mind, and hopefully you’ll be able to create a solid first page and chapter that the rest of your novel can then stand on. And if you have trouble with it, don’t worry. I did, and I’m sure a lot of other authors have, too. Just keep in mind that it doesn’t have to be perfect on your first try, and that NaNoWriMo is about writing, not about writing perfectly.
Since tomorrow’s Saturday, which is my usual vlogging day, I won’t be posting a writing advice blog. However, I will be updating you guys on my progress with my own NaNoWriMo project prep, so if that interests you at all I’ll see you tomorrow! If not, you can check back in on Sunday for Day 15 of NaNoWriMo prep, where we’ll be learning about how to properly foreshadow in your novel!