Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Secrets of a Good Chapter One

Okay, you've decided you're finally going to sit down and write a book. You've always wanted to do it, but now you're actually going to type the words...Chapter One. You know what you want to say, but you're just not certain where to start.

How about...In the beginning...? Wait a minute that has already been done. So, what about...It was the best of times. It was the worst of times...? Used already. Then there's the good old standby...It was a dark and stormy night... Okay, so I was only teasing, but my point is your beginning needs to be orignal. Not something from a book you've read before, nor a quote from a movie. Of course, you already know this. But while we're on the subject avoid cliches as much as possible. That said, let's move on and discuss the secrets of a good chapter one.

The first secret is start your book at the point where change comes into your character's life. This change can be many things: a stranger, a murder, a missing person, an illness, a new love and etc. But whatever the change is, it should affect the protagonist's status quo. It can be good or bad, but whatever it is life will never be the same for your protagonist. The second secret, this change will affect your character's everyday life, so you have to also set up his/her world. Before your story started your protagonist had a life and you need to show us a glimpse of it. A tricky thing to do, but if done just right you'll evoke empathy in your readers and make them want to follow your character to see how he/she will handle this "change" through the book. And please don't forget to show how the protagonist feels.

A couple of weeks ago in my writer's group one of my friends said, "Kathi's a head person." I wasn't sure what she meant by that, so I asked her. She said, "You're always telling us to write our character's inner thoughts." I thought about that for a while, and she's right. I do like to know what's going on in the main character's mind because that shores up motivation for their actions, plus builds on emotions--emotions of not only the character's, but the readers as well.

After you show a glimpse of your character's everyday life and the change that has happened you need to apply the third secret, the continuing result of the change. This will carry through to the end of your book.

To show you how these secrets work I'll give you an example: your protagonist is a thirty-six-year-old waitress, who has always dreamed of owning her own bakery, but she's in a dead-end job with no prospects of saving enough money (this is her world, her everyday life). One day her friend tells her of a cake decorating contest and the winner will receive $20,000 (enter the change). But there's an entry fee, and she'll have to take time off work. If her boss were to learn of her plans, he'd make sure she worked a double shift on the day of the contest (danger and conflict). She starts saving (continuing result). Notice we added danger and conflict. Does that remind you of another writing tip from a few weeks ago: want, tension and outcome? It should. They are all working together in chapter one and helping you set up your story.

There now, you have some of the secrets of a good chapter one.

Do you know other secrets to a good chapter one? Please feel free to share them, and I'll add them to the list.