Thursday, March 18, 2010

How to Write Your Novel’s 1st Chapter

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by C. Patrick Schulze

To listen to a podcast of this article, click HERE.

We all know the first chapter of your book is the most critical in the novel. We also know within this initial chapter, the first paragraph is of utmost importance. And of your first paragraph, the first sentence is primary above all. Why is this, and if these things in your novel carry so much weight, how does an author insure he gets it right?

They “why” is simple. Book sales.
Have you ever seen someone in a store pull out a book, flip it open, read for a moment then set it back on the shelf? Truth be told, they do that much more often than not. So, how does an author get the buyer to say, “yes?” Of course your cover, your title and your blurbs all have power to help form the buyer’s decision, yet despite all these, before they buy they’ll read that first paragraph or two.
The worst part of this? They offer you three, maybe four seconds to capture their attention. That’s it. You’ve got mere seconds to convince them to pay you a royalty. And that is why you’ve got to grab them right away. It’s all about the sale, my friends.
So, once they flip open your novel, how is it you capture their curiosity?
One tool to consider is Point of View, or POV as it’s known. If you’re new to the craft of writing, give serious consideration to third-person point of view. You might contemplate this even if you’re not so new to the craft of writing. Third-person POV, where the author acts as narrator, can be considered a default Point of View, if you will. It’s a powerful Point of View and offers the writer much more versatility with his words. It’s easiest to write and most familiar to your reader.
Another tip is to get to setting right away. This creates that first important word picture and immerses the reader in your story at once. You need not get too descriptive, for this can bog down the action, but give them a fact or two to ground them in time and place. For example, in my current manuscript, “Born to be Brothers,” right away the reader sees a wiry man as he reins in his plow mule. Can you see how the mule and plow give you a hint of setting? The secret with this is to make the setting active. That is, have your character perform some action in relation to the setting.
You also might wish to employ some startling action in the first sentence or two. Give them a reason to raise an eyebrow as they peruse your first page. Be sure not to give them the entire picture all at once or their curiosity won’t compel them to take your novel home.
Another possibility is to open with a puzzle of sorts. You might have your hero look over something he doesn’t understand. Of course, the “something” must be integral to the storyline, but if you do this well, it may raise a question in the reader’s mind and encourage him to learn more.
You might attempt to create that perfect twist of words that captures their imagination. “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.” It’s tough to do, but quite effective.
You might introduce the reader to an intriguing character in context or perspective. Is he an outsider, an outlaw or an odd duck? Again, this just might spark the reader’s imagination.
Another potential opening could include a microcosm of your entire story. If you’re writing about a murder, begin with a murder. If  your story revolves around a young girls fantasies, begin with a fantasy. This type of opening can bring your reader into focus fast.
You can also attempt to fascinate or intrigue the reader with an interesting character. Imagine an opening sentence that shows a female detective thrashing an ex-con. Might your reader want to know more about her? If you use this tactic, focus on the character’s emotional state during the scene and not their physical description. For more on how to create effective characters, consider THIS blog article.
Maybe you could introduce your intriguing character in context. Identify their personality. Is he an outsider, an outlaw or an odd duck? Again, the secret here is to focus on the emotional aspects of your character.
One way to draw a reader into your novel is to establish a powerful mood. Even Snoopy of “Peanuts” fame understood this. He always stated his stories with, “It was a dark and stormy night.” Don’t use that line, but you get the idea. An evocative atmosphere from the very beginning may just work for you, if fits your story.
Now I have a question for you. What remarkable openings have your written or read that might work for the readers of this blog?
As always, you know I wish  you only best-sellers.
C. Patrick Schulze
Author of the emerging novel, “Born to be Brothers.”


  1. Hey Patrick, it's been a while since I've actually posted anything, but I read every new article. Very good. I was reading this one, and was wondering if you'd like to give your opinion on my newest opener. It's a story I started not too long ago about the Irish Brigade:

    It was dark, and it was raining as the riders galloped up the road, mud splattering from under their hooves. The moon was just barely visible from the thick cloud cover; presenting only a tiny sliver of itself.


  2. Ryan, I’m flattered you’ve asked for my opinion. You do remember I tend toward honesty, don’t you?

    Here goes…

    "It was dark, and it was raining as the riders galloped up the road, mud splattering from under their hooves. The moon was just barely visible from the thick cloud cover; presenting only a tiny sliver of itself."

    There is no need to tell the reader it’s dark if there’s a moon out. That would be assumed.

    The cloud cover would also be assumed if it’s raining.

    Stay away from all forms of the phrase, “to be,” which includes the word, “was.”

    As this happened in the past, also eliminate every “ing” word possible.

    You should also stay away from “ly” words. Replace them with stronger verbs or nouns.

    Use semicolons only when necessary and almost never in the first paragraph. I’d eliminate it in this sentence.

    This is how I might rewrite this paragraph:

    “A sliver of moon highlighted the mud splashed up as the drenched riders and their overtaxed mounts raced through the torrential rain.”

    Hope this helps a bit, Ryan.

    Keep at it, my friend.


  3. By the way, Ryan... I forgot to mention the image you're trying to portray is great. Just make sure it leads into some sort of action.

  4. Oh it leads to some sort of action. The riders are English constables who are going to hang an Irishman for treason. Which sets off the entire story of the man's son fleeing Ireland and going to New York, joining the Dead Rabbits, and eventually, the 69th itself.

  5. Oh it leads to action. The riders are English constables on their way to hang an Irishman for treason. Which sets off the rest of the story of the man's son fleeing Ireland, going to New York, joining the Dead Rabbits, and eventually the 69th itself.

  6. Yep, that's action, all right. Good work.