Killer first chapters

There’s a secret to writing killer first chapters, but you probably won’t like it.

The secret is that you have to have something worth writing about.

There, I’ve said it.

You can write thousands of words, buy the latest plotting software, do a hundred drafts and join a dozen writing groups, but unless you care about what you’re writing, you might as well put lipstick on a pig (which, while cute, is really pretty pointless).

This doesn’t mean your characters have to try to end global warming or eliminate child poverty, although they are great ideas. What it does mean is that your central idea, the thing that gets you excited about writing, has to do just that – excite you. That’s because writing is about communication. How you communicate, the ‘mechanics’ of it, are less important.

So, a killer first chapter starts when you find something that gets your creative energies flowing. This could be a great story idea, a challenging issue, a terrific character who won’t leave you alone until you tell her story, or something that just makes you laugh. When you know what it is that you want to say, crafting the first chapter becomes easier. You can cut out things that sound pretty but don’t add to the story. You can also add things that enhance the mood you’re trying to create. Knowing what you’re writing about will tell you how to write it.

My speciality is in writing humorous short stories and picture books. In these short works, each paragraph is like a chapter, and you have to make the first line irresistible. In a novel, you have a little more room to move, but the principle is the same. Grab the reader in the first line and don’t let them go until you’re good and ready. You might want to leave them hanging, wondering what’s going to happen next, laughing, or just reading on because they can’t put the book down.

And this is where the first chapter comes in. It makes it clear to the reader what the book is going to be about.

Here’s an example:

Zelda had a plan. She was going to be the first chook in space.

This is the first line of my latest title, Zelda’s Big Adventure, a picture book illustrated by Shane McG and published by Allen & Unwin. The first sentence sets up a question –Who is Zelda and what’s her plan?  The second sentence is really a joke, but it tells you that not only is Zelda a chook, she’s a very special one who wants to be an astronaut. So, this is a case where humour hooks the reader, and if they like the joke, they’ll keep reading.

Not every story can start with a joke or weird concept like a chookonaut, but every story has to have a central idea or character that makes it worth telling.

Here’s another example:

In the holidays before the dreaded term at my school’s outdoor
education campus two things out of the ordinary happened.

A picture of me was plastered all over a twenty-metre billboard at
St Kilda junction.

And I kissed Ben Capaldi.

This is the opening of Fiona Wood’s outstanding YA novel, Wildlife. Anyone reading this opening will instantly know several things – the protagonist is a young person who is in an unusual situation (the billboard), is about to be taken out of her comfort zone (the ‘dreaded’ term at an outdoor campus) and is of an age where sexuality is going to be confusing, important and ever-present. If that’s the sort of story the reader thinks they’ll enjoy, they’ll keep reading and, unless Wood disappoints them (she doesn’t), they will do so until the end.

So your first chapter is also ‘selling’ the rest of the story to the reader.

If your novel were an old fashioned dress shop (stay with me here) your first chapter is the window display. If you like the black, off-the-shoulder number in the window, you might push the door open and see if they have it in your size. If the shop is full of gorgeous gowns, you’re going to make sure you look at everything; but if the only items for sale are jeans and T-shirts, not only are you not going to buy the dress, you’ll probably want to get out of there pretty quickly and never come back. That’s because the payoff – the jeans and T-shirts – didn’t fulfil the promise the little black dress made.

Don’t do that to your readers. Once you know what kind of story you’re going to deliver, tell them what your intention is. And then tell that story.

Take, for example, the first two paragraphs from one of my short stories:

A chicken walked into the room.

Anna looked up from her Annotated Lewis Carroll Omnibus, and gaped. Yes, it really was a chicken, a curvaceous Issa Brown if she wasn’t mistaken, but what was it doing striding through her front door? And why did it appear to be shushing her as it slipped behind the coats on the hatstand?

What this extract tells you (apart from the fact that I really like chooks) is that this story is going to be a bit oddball. On the first page we know that Anna has found a chicken walking into her apartment, and even though that’s strange enough, this chook is confident – it ‘strides’ – and seems to be telling her to keep quiet. So, we know something out of the ordinary is going to happen. The reader, if they like that kind of story, will read on to find out if Anna is hallucinating (she isn’t), or there’s something very different about this chook (there is).

The other reason a first chapter has to kick backside is that as a writer you owe it to your readers to write a really good story. That’s your job as a writer. Your readers, be they publishers or the general public, are busy people with lots of other things that can distract or entertain them. They don’t want to waste time reading stories that don’t get them excited. If they hate your work, they’ll just ignore it. However, if your reader loves it, given we’re all so connected to social media, chances are they’ll tell their network about it. With a bit of luck, you might even end up with a strong following of readers who inhale everything you write.

So, if you want to engage your readers, and make sure they read all the brilliant stories you’re writing, write about things you are passionate about. Then write a first chapter that sets the tone for the rest of the book.

Oh, and include a chicken if you can.

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