Ten Must-Haves in a First Chapter

This article first appeared in the RWA/NYC Keynotes newsletter (August, 2014).
With the advent of not-so-great writing making headway in self-publishing and other alternative venues, I find myself banging my head against the wall. “This author made millions?” I beg God incredulously. “Why the hell aren’t I published!”Aside from the power of marketing, self-promotion, and planting yourself in the right place at the right time, I think its fair to say that readers don’t always know how to identify good writing. They know if they like something, and if they don’t, but they don’t know why (assuming your readers aren’t writers).

Have no fear, I’m here, and I’ve got the little red pill! Get ready to be ripped from your blissful ignorance and dumped into a barrel of Twilight-haters (this coming from a former Twilight fan). I have identified ten fundamental basics that should help you understand what should be in a first chapter (derived from Blake Snyder’s SAVE THE CAT, Christopher Vogler’s THE WRITER’S JOURNEY, and Debra Dixon’s GOAL, MOTIVATION, & CONFLICT), and will usher you into the never-ending hell the rest of us know-it-alls live in.


  1. Opening Hook-This is the action/event/premise that draws you in, why the heck you’d ever read past the first paragraph. Usually, you “start with a bang” and if not, then some damn good writing in a character’s deep point of view. A good opening hook is usually best if it is a layered hook, meaning multiple hooks folded over one another. Here are some possible hooks: action or danger, overpowering emotion, a surprising situation, evocative setting, unique character, foreshadowing, shocking dialogue, paradoxical situations, and raising a question.


  1. Ordinary World-We have to see the heroine in her life as it is, the calm before the storm. It gives us a point of comparison so that we can understand the impact of her ultimate transformation. The last chapter of your story should mirror this world, functioning like a bookend, reflecting how the hero/heroine has changed.


  1. Meet Cute-The moment when the heroine meets the hero. Some people disagree and think the cute meet needn’t be in the first chapter, but I usually put down a book if I don’t see the romance in the first ten pages. “But I’ve developed a really strong character,” you say, “I need to introduce the hero and the heroine’s POV’s before I have them meet.” I hear, “Blah, blah, blah, I’m lazy, blah, blah, blah, I can’t figure out how to make it happen.” Work harder. I want libidinal stimulation and I want it now, damn it! Titillate me.


  1. GMC Must be established-A clearly defined goal, motivation, and conflict (GMC) for the main character, for the opening scene, and at least abstractly for the entire story arch (or underlying premise), must be established. The character’s GMC should be tied in with their most basic emotional need and or “primal urge.” I also like to tie this in with the character’s Heart (see number 6).


  1. Subplot Introduction-Secondary characters and their GMC’s have to be introduced at the very least by name. They will mirror the main characters issues and provide important insights. Make them count. For an example of what not to do, In the first chapter of FIFTY SHADES OF GREY, we are introduced to sterile blonde secretaries who give each other meaningful looks, and a hot black guy, whom we NEVER SEE AGAIN! Please, please, don’t do that. Fill the first chapter with relevant characters that make you want to turn the page. (I can’t tell you how disappointed I was when I realized that guy would never come back and loosen a secretary’s bun—if you know what I mean).


  1. Heart-Give us a reason to love the hero/heroine. Why do we want to root for them? Why do we care about them? What would make you empathize with them? What would they do, that no one else would? Maybe the hero is a broke Wall Street banker who gives his last dime to the bum on the street. Maybe the heroine is a cop who lets a thief go because he’s stealing bread for his starving children. Maybe your character volunteers as tribute to replace her sister in a deadly game hosted by a psychotic narcissist in charge of a nightmarish dystopian society. How do we know your hero or heroine is extraordinary, when all they want to be is an “every man?”


  1. Devices-Usually the hero or heroine has something about them that makes them unique, some quirk/tool that might seem silly or like a character flaw, but will ultimately save the day. Think Luke Skywalker’s light saber, and inherent connection with The Force. Or Spock’s unfeeling intellect. Or Harry Potter’s wand. Or Scarlett O’Hara’s biting wit and ambition.


  1. Disaster leading into inciting incident-End the chapter with a hook; something either in the middle of the action, a foreboding image, or a lingering question. Whatever it is, make it something that makes the reader want to turn the page at three in the morning instead of going to bed. This will be the event that catapults the main character out of their Ordinary world and lands them on the edge of a cliff. Whether or not they decide to jump, is “the call”–but that doesn’t happen until chapter three (more or less).


  1. A strong voice-Voice reveals the character’s quirks and unique way of experiencing the world, his point of view (POV). It encompasses what he thinks, does, and says about his surroundings. Example: A neat nick is going to react to a messy room differently than a complete slob, from the way he sees the space, to what he is compelled (or not) to do about it, to the way he expresses himself.


  1. Dialogue– Dialogue is essential to revealing a character’s voice. Especially when it is in direct opposition to what we know is the character’s internal state (because that creates conflict), and/or when it is used in tandem with the character’s actions to create a subtext (like sexual tension). Dialogue is not conversational. It is that great comeback you thought up after the argument is over. Dialogue should reveal information while raising more questions, keep the reader in suspense, set up the conflicts, move the plot forward, and never be predictable or boring. Dialogue should not repeat an internal thought, and vice versa. Once is enough. Twice? Only if you find a way to make it funny. Three times? For shame.


So there you have it. Ten things that will quite possibly ruin your favorite trash to read. On the bright side, you can now appreciate good writing, and have your mind completely blown when you stumble across it. Trust me, take the red pill; its a better story!




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