Since this is my first blog post, it’s only right that I talk about how I write my first chapters. But before I get into that, I have to point out (you know, just in case you didn’t notice) that I have a pretty new website, and it’s full of my two favorite colors. This site is better than the last. It looks better, there’s more wiggle room for the future, and you can participate more through things like polls. I hope you all love it as much as I do!
I’m not a fan of long introductions that dance around what I clicked on a headline for, so let’s get to business. First things first, I like to think that I’m particularly strong at two things as a writer: characterization and starting a story (it’s the continuing and ending that I have to find the motivation to do). These things make sense together. I love to craft characters, so you can probably understand why I’d be so enthusiastic about exploring who they are in the short moments before I unravel their worlds.
There are six (okay, five, but I’m going to cheat a bit) elements that go into my first chapters. I realized them after I had the idea to write this blog post and really sat to think about what all my initial chapters had in common. In short, those elements are focusing on a couple or a few main characters, diving right into the story, holding off on describing too much, presenting open-ended questions, introducing opposing forces, and promising a good time (for the readers, that is). I’ll go into more detail below.
1: I zone in on two or three major players in the story. I always have a big cast for my novels, but I only need a few to jumpstart the whole thing. I don’t need to introduce every single character or give every name that pops up a backstory and complete physical description. I focus on giving you a good idea of who a couple characters are and I sprinkle some hints about other characters around that.
- In Deeper Than Rap, I name-drop quite a few key characters, but Civil and Monroe are the stars of the show in chapter one. They’re 2/3 of the cast’s main trio and the first chapter focuses on them to establish the catalyst for the story and set a precedent for how the rest of it will go. At its core, the chapter shows the naivete of a young woman with big dreams and a lack of life experience, and that theme remains prevalent throughout the story.
- Other big roles include Tailyn, Ghetto, Charisma, E-Mager, and Spirit, but one of them is only mentioned a few times, two have backseat roles that push Civil and Monroe together in differing ways, and the other two aren’t even brought up. I like to hint at other important characters without creating name soup. By the end of chapter one, you should remember Monroe and Civil as the teenager with a vision and the man who, for some reason, wants to bring that vision to life. And Tailyn’s unexplained opposition should be the next thing on your mind by the time you read the last sentence.
2. I don’t dwell on normalcy. I jump straight into the story and conflict. Based on all the chapter one blog posts and story structure guides I’ve read, I’m an outlier here. So many people suggest starting off with what’s normal for your character, sitting on that for a chapter or two, and introducing the main conflict later after building up to it. I circumvent this advice at every opportunity. I don’t show normal. I show normalcy unraveling.
- In chapter one of Easthaven Heights, Chauncey has just uprooted his life and moved to the other side of the country by himself. He doesn’t even have a normal anymore, and that’s where we meet him. Yet and still, we’re able to compare and contrast what is with what was. He’s 19 and is now living alone after growing up in a house with eight other children. He moved from a huge city in California to a small, quiet town on the east coast. Those are just two instances where he went from one extreme to another. You don’t have to see how things were to understand how they affected how things are.
- Deeper Than Rap starts at the end and then immediately jumps back to the beginning of the end. In chapter one, we never actually see what Monroe’s life was like before it started to fall apart. She tells us she’s a party girl and is living it up on her siblings’ dimes after graduating high school, but we don’t start there. We begin where normalcy ends, and we witness the exact moment where things start to change.
3. I push character and hold off on backstory, description, and worldbuilding. My stories are always character-driven, so the characters drive the story. It’s all about them, and that’s especially important to me in chapter one. I need to either make you love a character from the start so that you’ll turn the page to chapter two or I need to make you curious about a character from the start so you’ll turn the page to chapter two. I don’t aim to do a specific one.
- Heavy takes place on an alternate planet, but I don’t give much detail about it because that’s now what I want you to focus on. Ciella is what’s important right now, so I don’t give up the goods just yet. You know the planet is named Zihiri and something is killing off a group of people who live on it. You know that Ciella is brave (or arrogant) enough to set out to solve it. You know she thinks so highly of herself that she believes she’s ready to rule the kingdom at 19 years old. Yes, worldbuilding would be a great way to open a story like this, but so would hinting at the elements of the world and focusing on the people in it.
- Avarice starts with us seeing that Muse and Zen, despite being twins with a tight bond, are polar opposites. I don’t need to go into the minute details of their childhood to explain why that is. What matters in chapter one is that they are, in fact, different and those differences will push the story forward.
4. I utilize open loops, meaning I present questions and withhold the answers to get readers to chapter two. I learned this phrase from Robert J. Ryan’s Book Blurbs Unleased. I’ve always done this but never knew there was a name for it. I don’t pose just any questions. I pose questions that you have to think about and continue reading to answer. It’s important that these questions are open-ended and unanswered.
- What was the guy in the stairwell really saying in Easthaven Heights? On the surface, it’s a racist remark meant to discourage people with brown skin, like Chauncey, from staying in Easthaven. By the end, we see that the town is… different. Was he racist? Or is there another reason a new face in Easthaven could mess things up?
- Why do people want to kill Desonjia in Blood & Water? What did Arie mean when she called Jia special? What brand of “special” would nearly cost a teenaged girl who just wants to party after school her life?
- Who shot Monroe?
5. I present a hero and a villain. More importantly, at least to me, I let readers decide which is which. I don’t care to tell readers who to root for. In fact, if all my readers either hate or love a certain character, I consider that a failure on my part and rework the character. My characters are human. I want some people to love them and some to hate them, just like with every other human. No one is perfect and no one is all bad.
- Ciella is a short-tempered princess who has had everything she ever wanted handed to her. Now, she wants to be queen. Are her gripes with her big sister valid or is Ciella just power hungry and doesn’t think anyone who isn’t her should rule the kingdom?
- We learn from other characters that Tailyn doesn’t care for Civil and doesn’t want him anywhere near her sister. Civil tells us he can make Monroe the star she dreams of being and will go out of his way to make it happen. We don’t get Tailyn’s reasoning. We don’t get Civil’s motives. We get two opposing forces and have to come up with an initial idea of who to root for. And then we spend the rest of the story questioning our judgement.
6. I close with a promise of more to come. This is where I’m cheating a bit. This is technically just an expansion on open loops, but it’s imperative that the chapters end like this. I throw in a few more questions. Make things a bit more ominous. Give readers just a little more incentive to keep going.
- “Intent on not letting Charisma’s negativity have an ill effect on my night, I went back downstairs and rejoined the party. Not realizing just how true his words were, I pushed them to the back of my mind, setting into motion a series of events that would lead to the best and worst times of my life.” (Deeper Than Rap)
- “Desonjia’s mind wandered back to the bodies sinking to the bottom of the lake. Sure, she was alive, but they were lucky.” (Blood & Water)
- “Eve turned back to the direction they’d come from. She steadied herself against the back of the school, closed her eyes, and asked the one question that she suspected was on everyone’s mind. ‘What the hell did Santana get us in to?’” (The Biggest Boss)
And there you have it. It’s a simple but efficient formula that never fails to deliver a compelling first chapter. Comment your thoughts and let me know which of my opening chapters you like best. Thanks for reading!