Novel Writing

Chapter One: Where do you begin?

The Protagonist
You have to figure out who your protagonist is today before you can ever hope to understand how she will react to the conflict you’re about to throw into her life. | The Protagonist (Photo credit: JerixTheKid)

As a reader, I expect a lot from a first chapter. I want to be drawn into the story immediately, from page one. I can’t stand a novel that makes me wade through three or four chapters before something “happens.”

Choosing a natural starting point is key. I wrote the first draft of my chapter one last week after completing several writing exercises for class. I was looking for that seemingly small action in my character’s life that would help set the story in motion.

I provided my character with a choice to make in the very first chapter. It may not seem like a huge choice at the time, but it’s one the reader will look back at four or five chapters later and realize that none of the conflict of this novel would have ever occurred had the main character chosen differently in chapter one.

A first chapter should also introduce the reader to the main character and any major players that have helped to make the main character who she is on page one. Other characters may enter in chapter two, but to me, chapter one is all about firmly placing the main character in the right now. Chapter one should show the main character’s current “normal” and hint at the coming conflict that will turn the character’s world upside down. She will then be left to deal with the mess and figure out her new “normal” by the end of the book.

Yet, how can you introduce your reader to these characters if you don’t yet understand who they are yourself? I used to believe character sketches and similar activities were just a bunch of unnecessary busywork. I would leave my characters to their own devices and wait for them to reveal themselves to me in their own due time. Unfortunately, they were shy and unwilling to talk about themselves unless I asked.

So, I’ve learned to do that “busywork” and found that it often leads to me getting some actual writing done (go figure.) I definitely agree that writing character sketches can incite you to write that first chapter if you haven’t yet figured out where to begin your story. You can’t sit and stare at the wall and hope your starting point will come to you of its own accord. You have to just start writing.

Finally, whatever you write first doesn’t necessarily need to be chapter one. In fact, I may later realize that my current chapter one would make a better chapter four. Once I do some more character sketches and free-writes to get myself rooted more firmly into my characters’ world, I may find there are more details and actions my reader needs to know about before getting to the action in my current chapter one.

There is an infinite number of possible starting points for any story. Given the fact that we may end up changing our chapter one an equally infinite number of times, I don’t think we should spend too much time worrying about where to start our stories in the early phases of writing the novel. That may be a decision better left to the revision stage.

~Mandy Webster

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