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Bang! Writing a Killer First Chapter (Part Two – the Stakes)

March 29, 2015

A few weeks ago, I blogged on the first rule in writing a killer first chapter, which is preparation. Namely, don’t worry about making a first chapter perfect straight out the gate – get your story down, understand what your book is about, and take another look at the first chapter before sending it to Query Land. The first chapter will/should always be rough because you wrote it first, which is why you should look at it last, as well.

So what’s the next rule in writing a killer first chapter? Are you ready for it? Here we go…

Start where the story begins.

Well, thanks a lot, you’re thinking to yourself. I totally could not have thought of that on my own.

I know, I know, this seem obvious, but it’s hard to get right. In your mind (and probably on paper), you have an outline of your story. You’ve mapped out the major conflict, the subplots, and the characters; and while as a good writer, you know that your imagination might make you stray from your path if it feels right, you know your destination.

With so much information in your head, it might be hard to figure out where to begin. You want the reader to understand your character, so you might be inclined to bog down the beginning with well-written (but unnecessary) backstory. You might worry that you need a lot of action right away, so the result is an action-packed start that endangers characters before the reader is invested in them.

To start where the story begins, think of where you’re headed. The beginning should be the action that introduces the stakes. For example, while house-sitting for my parents last week, I read three books: THE STAND, TWILIGHT (I know, I know, but those books are entertaining), and ELEANOR & PARK. Consider where these three books begin, based on where they end up:

  • In THE STAND (which is possibly the greatest novel ever written), the book begins when an Army official escapes from his post after a weaponized strain of influenza (Captain Trips) is accidentally released. That Army official goes on to infect others, and Captain Trips ultimately wipes out about 99% of society. The book is about what happens post-Armageddon and who will prevail in a stand between the remaining good folks versus the remaining evil folks. The beginning to this novel is perfect, as the story begins when Captain Trips begins its trail of destruction.
  • In TWILIGHT, the book begins when Bella moves to Forks. After setting the scene, Stephanie Meyer almost immediately introduces the love interest, Edward. Right away, the reader has a sense of Bella, the gloomy surroundings of the small Washington town (a perfect habitat for vampires), and feels the connection between the unconventional couple.
  • In ELEANOR & PARK, the book begins when Park meets Eleanor on the bus. The story is a love story. It begins when the characters meet. Simple. (In fact, everything about that book is simple and utilitarian. It is almost all dialogue, and its stripped-down nature enhances the power of the story).

If you’re having trouble figuring out where your story begins, don’t feel bad. We’ve all been there. Heck, I was there recently. In my new advanced middle grade book, LISSA BLACK PRESENTS: MONSTERVILLE, I rewrote the beginning about five times.

In my book, the story begins where my main character (Lissa) moves to dinky little Freeburg and finds a monster skulking in the woods behind her creek. In the first iteration, Lissa’s still in her old town, upset about the move. In the second iteration, Lissa’s en route to Freeburg. And in the third iteration, she’s looking around her new house and thinking, What a dump. That is where the story begins. And sure, it was annoying to kill my darlings by hacking away at my first chapter, but that’s what you have to do sometimes.

Good luck! And don’t miss out on the third and final installment of this blog series. If you follow me on Twitter, I’ll post the blog when it becomes available.

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