Bang Out an Amazing First Chapter
Whether you’re a book writing newbie itching for advice or celebrating the completion of a first draft, you’ve landed in the right spot. Truth bomb coming at ya – whether you’re seeking a traditional publishing deal or pursuing the self-publishing route, your first chapter needs to shine with a bunch of essentials that leap off the page. Agents are scanning for certain elements, and they are experts at finding them or not. If your first chapter is missing the nitty-gritty, agents will cast it aside. Remember, they are bombarded with queries on the daily that contain first pages or a few chapters. There’s limited time to sift through the massive number of emails they receive from debut authors. So, your first chapter must tick all their boxes and intrigue them at the same time. If self-publishing sparks your interest you must double-down on the idea of a spectacular first chapter.
Below are several invented paragraphs I wrote for the purpose of this article to illustrate the essential features one must slip in for a banging first chapter. After reading them, review the first chapter ground rules below and analysis that follows, to get the best idea of what you need to accomplish.
As I descended the filthy steps onto the NYC subway platform, the stench of urine and an unidentifiable greasy odor hit me in the face. I just wanted to get to my apartment in one piece, take a long relaxing bubble bath, and down a few glasses of wine while I binge-watched a Netflix series. I tried not to touch the grimy railing. Who knew what germs lurked there? Damn it, my high-heel caught in a crack, and I stumbled on the last step, landing on the garbage-laden floor, ripping a hole in my newest pair of nylons, and scraping my palms. The place was deserted at this ungodly hour so at least no one witnessed my spectacular nosedive, but I blushed, nonetheless.
Why was I always the last one out of the office? Oh, right, because as my therapist declared in our last session," Hailey Kensington, you're a sucker for perfection and order." I couldn't let go of that childhood desire to prove myself. That thorn in my side has wreaked havoc since Y2K and my seventh birthday party. I cringed, contemplating the dying days of my twenties, still an underling with no prospect of a junior partnership if that skinny bitch, Amelia Bardot, remains in charge.
Lost in my perseverating thoughts, by the time I looked up it was too late. A shadow at the opposite end of the platform staggered toward me. Wild thumping in my chest signaled approaching doom. As the man closed in, I backed up against the tiled mosaic wall. Droplets of sweat popped out on my upper lip. He had crazed wide eyes and a demented expression that screamed of severe mental illness. The grubby man reeked of body odor and alcohol and clutched a bloody knife in his dirty hand. I plunged a trembling limb into my jacket pocket and wrapped my fingers around the cannister of pepper spray. I caught a blur of silver as a train rumbled into the station. As soon as the doors opened, I squirt my would-be attacker in the face and threw myself into the subway car.
The following rules are not cast in stone, but something to aim for:
Readers need to have a meet and greet with your main character. Don’t be fooled into thinking that needs to be a descriptive paragraph about your protagonist’s appearance. It doesn’t. You can sprinkle those attributes throughout the story. Instead, spit out the important stuff like your character’s name, age, and gender, and maybe what they do for a living. Write about them with care and captivation rather than spelling everything out in a boring list or character announcement. The idea is to titillate the agent or reader without cramming in everything you already know about your main character. In the first paragraph above, the reader is made aware of the character's gender by the high-heels and nylons descriptions. The reader is formally introduced to Hailey Kensington in the second paragraph. We know her age by the Y2K and seventh birthday references.
Choose Past or Present Tense
The above is written in first person, past tense.
Help agents and future readers identify emotionally with your protagonist. Include what he or she is feeling in your opening scene and subsequent paragraphs. Show what’s happening with a careful composition that uses sensory details and perhaps colors to explain what the protagonist is going through. Is your character blushing scarlet from embarrassment or white as a sheet from fright? Describe what they see, hear, and smell as they scan their surroundings.
Hailey Kensington is feeling frustrated by her personal issues and the problems with her job and boss. She's an overthinker and she knows it. That's why she's in therapy. Her troubles are further exacerbated by her fall and subsequent encounter, but she's ready for the unexpected, hence the pepper spray. Though she's frightened by the incident, she has no qualms about defending herself. The reader see's the subway platform as Hailey does. We know it's dirty and grimy and there's garbage on the floor. One can imagine what she smells by the identifying odors of urine and some kind of grease. We also sense she's a germaphobe because she avoids touching the railing.
Save the backstory and incorporate tidbits of info sparingly in future chapters. We know Hailey wants to advance in her career and is determined to prove herself. We know the struggles began on her seventh birthday but we don't know why.
Is the tone of your story light and humorous, dark and dangerous, mysterious and thrilling? Do your best to convey that in your first chapter. The tone above is bleak and frustrating for the heroine, but also dangerous. She’s on her own, trying to get home after a long day, and overthinking the struggles of her life. She’s confronted by an unexpected situation and though afraid, she rises to the occasion.
We know the main character worked late and just wants to get home to relax. It’s implied she had a rough day, perhaps getting into it with her boss. We guess she lives alone because she describes what she’s going to do when she gets home, and her activities are all solitary.
In this story the theme is corporate America, specifically in NYC and how that relates to the main character and her dream of success.
Our heroine works in Manhattan but lives outside the city. Both locations will probably be the backdrop of scenes throughout the story with perhaps a few other settings thrown in. We know she was born in 1993 because she celebrated her seventh birthday as the new millennium ushered in.
Nemesis, villain, and antagonist are different things. The nemesis in this story might be Amelia Bardot, the skinny-bitch boss, a physical person, but the intangible nemesis is the need the protagonist has, to prove herself. There’s no actual villain yet, but the antagonist so far is the system that she perceives is working against her. If a villain is introduced, the system can still serve as an antagonist.
There is initial conflict right out of the gate, on the subway platform, that is resolved but hopefully agents and readers will keep turning the pages to read about the underlying conflict of the protagonist’s life and how that’s resolved.
Plot might be the most important part of the story with the greatest impact. It starts a chain of events that will unfold throughout the narrative. Introduce it in the first chapter in a clever way and the rest of the elements of your story will fall into place. You don’t need to spell it all out in chapter one, that will occur through passages, scenes, and dialogue. In the above, the plot is centered around Hailey Kensington trying to advance in her career but she's met with stumbling blocks, of her own creation and that of her boss. Will she advance? Why is Hailey so hard on herself? Will her boss become an even worse adversary or will Hailey somehow triumph? Will there be romance in her future? A leads to B leads to C etc.
Intimate the objectives your protagonist is striving to achieve. We may not know specific goals, but we glean from the passage that she’s trying to find herself and fix what’s not working while furthering her career. Figure out the stakes and leave room for your protagonist to grow. These ideas will lead agents and readers to the end goal.
In the above passages, I haven’t described the protagonist per say but we still glean several things:
Ø The protagonist is female, almost thirty-years-old
Ø She works in the city at a job that requires she dress up, perhaps a law firm
Ø She may be a workaholic
Ø We know she’s ambitious
Ø She has a need to prove herself
Ø She struggles with low self-esteem as evidenced by her negative recurring thoughts
Ø She’s working on her issues in therapy
Ø She might be a germaphobe
Ø She’s clumsy
Ø She cares about what others think, hence the reason her face flushes even though no one saw her fall
Ø The dark and desolate with an air of aloneness echoes the protagonist’s life
Ø She’s taking the subway late at night so probably doesn’t have the funds for a car service
Ø She’s in a scary situation
Ø We are rooting for her to stay safe
Ø She’s feisty and has no qualms about protecting herself
Ø We hope she escaped unscathed
Ø I’ve introduced a possible nemesis, the skinny-bitch boss standing in the way of the protagonist reaching her goal of climbing the corporate ladder
Ø The antagonist in this situation may not be a person, but the corporate system working against her
Ø The main character strives for a better life
Don’t let the above suggestions scare or intimidate you. Go for it with your first chapter. Add as much as you can while keeping things concise. It’s your opportunity as an aspiring author to grab an agent’s attention. Blend the above guidelines with your imagination, captivating and carefully written prose, exciting conflict, and an original story.