I was thinking the other day about how to write a dynamite first chapter, and I realized there are more ways to accomplish that task than there are oysters in the sea. But there's one sure-fire, can't-miss, absolutely foolproof way to pull it off. Interested? Okay, here it is.
No kidding. Write your first chapter however you want, and then go back and cut it. Cut the chapter in half. And then cut it in half again. And keep cutting until it's one or two pages long. Or less. Far less.
Nothing turns off a reader at the beginning of a book (short of horrendous writing, which is rampant among self-published authors and even some conventionally published ones) faster than a long, rambling first chapter. And, the antithesis (are you ready for this revelation?) is that nothing turns a reader on more than a short, punchy chapter that lays out the plot, introduces the main character, and sets the hook so the reader will need to continue reading.
Did you hear that?
He'll need to keep reading.
Is writing such a short, punchy chapter easy? Of course not. Is it possible? Absolutely. Will it come naturally to a writer? Never. Will it be worth the writer's time and frustration to deliver such a chapter? You can bet your life on it.
But, you ask (oh, innocent uninitiated scribe that you are), can you achieve such a literary phenomenon? Are you capable of crafting such dynamic prose? Such … Oh, you know what I mean (courtesy of the current Oval Office occupant).
Sure. It's simple. Kind of.
You work at it. And work at it some more. You cut. You revise. You sharpen. You focus. And, when you do, in the end, you'll have a first chapter that reads something like this.
Mira knew she was playing with poison. She also knew she couldn't stop. And so did he.
And he didn't.
That's Chapter One. Chapter Two starts out by backtracking. Explaining who Mira is. What she was getting involved with. And with whom. Lots of fill. Lots of backstory. You see where I'm going with this?
To create a short, grabby, can't-put-it-down first chapter, you have to think ahead. You have to understand where your story is going and how it's going to get there. And that's how you can get a grip on delivering the punchiest beginning your book possible.
Still stumped? Don't have a clue as to how to proceed? Think ahead to the turning point in your story, the crisis, the principle conflict. Think about that critical moment when your main character will sink or swim. Then, boil that down to a single sentence or two, the way you would if you were writing a cover blurb for your book. Or perhaps a log line for a screenplay—something you have to deliver to a busy producer or director in twenty seconds or less to get you through the door and invited back for lunch. Lay that out for the reader (without revealing too much), and then use a flashback to fill in the blanks and take the reader past that crisis point to the book's conclusion.
Still confused? Pick up a DVD of Double Indemnity. Pay attention to the format of the story. Watch the opening narrative that Fred MacMurray lays out at the very beginning of the film—confessing to his boss what a heinous thing he's just done. Except that he doesn't realize he's confessing to his boss. He thinks, instead, that he's memorializing his deed into his boss's dictation machine to be discovered long after MacMurray escapes the long arm of the law. From the very beginning of the film, you know what happened. But, you don't know how, and that's what keeps you glued to the screen.
It's the same with writing. Tell the basic "what" or the log line of the story up front but withhold the who, when, where, and especially the why to reveal a little at a time as the story unfolds.
But, if you're a talented writer, you can do it. If not … well, why are we even talking here?
See you in the movies.
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D. J. Herda is author of the new e-Book series of writing advice, About Writing Right, available at Amazon and at fine booksellers everywhere. You can also check out his column, "The Author-Ethicist," at Substack. It's free, it's entertaining, it's informative, and it runs weekly. Well, almost weekly. Occasionally weekly. Sometimes weekly. (Hey, he does his best!)