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The Secret to an Unputdownable First Chapter copy

The Secret to an Unputdownable First Chapter

The Secret to an Unputdownable First Chapter copy

Nothing is more powerful in fiction than unputdownable writing. And crafting a compelling first chapter is its own art form. Today I’ll be sharing the secret of how great writers do it.

Let’s start with what readers want—and even expect—to see in a first chapter.

 

What do readers want from a first chapter?

Recently I wrote a post on what makes a great first line in a novel. In that post, I discussed the four elements found in almost every great first line: POV, setting, tension, and questions. Not every first line includes all of these, but all first lines include at least one of them.

If you didn’t read that post, here’s a quick breakdown. (This will be relevant to our discussion of great first chapters, so I suggest you read this part anyway!)

Readers are helpless babies when they first enter your world—they don’t know up from down, and they’re waiting for you, the writer, to tell them what’s what. There are four elements your readers are looking for right away:

POV: This refers to your point of view. Readers want to know whose head we’re in, and what tense. First person? Third? Past? Present? Is the narrator limited or omniscient?

Setting: Readers are looking for grounding, even if it’s barebones. They want to know what kind of world this is, what its rules are, and how to picture it.

Tension: This is one everyone knows—does your novel suggest problems? If so, then your readers are likelier to read on to find out how those problems are resolved.

Questions: This is the one universal element you can’t go without. Every great first line in every great novel raises questions in the reader’s mind that can only be answered by reading on.

Let’s look at a classic first line from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

The questions I have in my head after reading this line are: How is it possible Buendía had never seen ice before? Why did he face a firing squad? And the biggest one: How did he survive the firing squad?

All terrific questions. I’d read on to find out the answer to any one of them.

Each of these four elements are valuable to include in the first line—but if one of the four isn’t in your opening line, then it almost certainly needs to be established by the end of your first chapter.

Why is this?

Because readers expect it. Many readers don’t realize they have these expectations when they start reading, but they absolutely do. Their expectations about POV, setting, tension, and questions have been established over a lifetime of reading books and watching movies and absorbing stories in one way or another.

In Journal of a Novel, John Steinbeck’s companion journal to East of Eden (my favorite book!), he writes that “a chapter should be a perfect cell in the whole book and should almost be able to stand alone.”

When considering the idea of a “standalone” chapter, it’s helpful to think about like an episode of a TV show. Certain episodes of already-great series live rent-free in people’s minds, even after the rest of the show fades away: “The Constant” from Lost; “Ozymandias” from Breaking Bad; “The Rains of Castamere” (aka the Red Wedding) in Game of Thrones.

Each of these episodes, while tied to a larger story, stand alone in their potency and unforgettability. They each have an arc which includes a beginning, a middle, and an end—stories within a story.

Steinbeck’s advice feels particularly important when writing your first chapter. If your first chapter is written with enough standalone power, that will set an important baseline for the rest of your novel. After the first chapter, readers will expect each of your chapters to be equally dazzling, each of them satisfying in their own way. And all together, you will tell a better story.

Let’s break down exactly how to write a first chapter, starting with understanding what it is.

 

What constitutes a chapter, exactly?

A chapter, as Steinbeck calls it, is a “cell.” It can hold a little or a lot. It can contain one scene or many, or it could simply be the narrator speaking to readers. Some writers create long chapters, some short, and a few of them don’t even use chapters at all. (Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is a great example of terrific storytelling without the use of chapters.)

But if you are writing in chapters, one thing is always true: every chapter must be unputdownable.

How is this achieved?

In most cases, through scenes. Scenes are the most common vehicle for telling a story because of their immersive power. Most readers want to escape into another world—your world—and one of the most effective ways to achieve this is through carnal detail.

Carnal detail refers to the invocation of the five senses: sight, smell, touch, taste, and sound. Most writers focus on sight, but the other senses carry equal potency, and the more of them you draw on, the more immersive potential your story will have.

(Note: Carnal details—like everything you include in your story—must have a purpose. Readers won’t care if a car is red unless that fact is somehow important to the plot or the story at large.)

Writing a scene is an art which merits its own post, but suffice it to say, scenes themselves can act as self-encapsulating stories, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. (See my earlier standalone-TV-show examples.)

But a chapter doesn’t have to be in-scene to be great. The first chapter of Steinbeck’s East of Eden, considered by some to be the greatest novel ever, features the narrator simply describing the Salinas Valley in California.

Here are the first two paragraphs:

THE SALINAS VALLEY is in Northern California. It is a long narrow swale between two ranges of mountains, and the Salinas River winds and twists up the center until it falls at last into Monterey Bay.

I remember my childhood names for grasses and secret flowers. I remember where a toad may live and what time the birds awaken in the summer—and what trees and seasons smelled like—how people looked and walked and smelled even. The memory of odors is very rich.

The power of this opening chapter lies in its narrator’s irresistible voice. Some writers achieve such a level of craft that they could write a phonebook and still keep readers enthralled. In this novel’s first chapter, Steinbeck also uses imagery to great effect, as well as invoking the promise of a grander story to come. And, as per his own advice, his first chapter could stand alone.

However you conceive of your first chapter, it should thoroughly ground readers in your world and be written with a clear, logical POV. And the ending should be dynamite.

On that note, let’s talk endings.

 

What makes a great chapter ending?

One of the keys to an unputdownable chapter is the ending. As with your first line, you should ensure your first chapter ends with questions and tension that make your book unputdownable

Remember this, if nothing else: Readers must never put your book down.

If you write and revise with this one commandment in mind, you’re practically guaranteed to write a better story. You’ll be capitalizing on one of the most powerful drivers of our species: curiosity. Much of where we’re at today—the heights we’ve achieved within civilization—is grounded in simple curiosity.

When you present a big enough problem or ask a compelling enough question, this is catnip for readers. Particularly when the only way to find out the resolution or answer is to turn the page.

Turn the page. Turn the page. Your readers must be unable to stop turning the page until there are no more pages left to turn.

Every scene and every chapter ending should follow this rule. If, as you reread your story, you find you are anything but delighted or gripped by the ending to one of your scenes or chapters, it probably needs revision.

 

What do readers in my genre want to see in a first chapter?

Finally, let’s break down reader expectations in the first chapter of some of the most popular genres.

Here’s one nearly universal truth among readers: the first chapter should feature your main character’s routine, everyday life. It’s only by establishing what’s normal that readers can understand the baseline and know when your story is diverging from it.

(Note: there are exceptions, like stories that begin in medias res, which means starting in the middle of things. Think of the movie Fight Club’s opening.)

Romance

Romance readers expect to be shown the everyday life of one or both of the main characters: the female main character (FMC) and/or the male main character (MMC). Some first chapters—those which feature alternating POVs—include both the FMC and MMC POVs in separate scenes.

Notice I said scenes again. This is because most romance occurs in scene, though there are always outliers.

What romance readers don’t necessarily expect in chapter one is the “meet-cute.” This is a necessary part of the romance formula: it’s when the two main characters first meet. The first chapter can include the meet-cute, but in an average-length romance novel, that might be moving the story along too quickly. Generally, the meet-cute occurs within the first few chapters.

Subgenre plays heavily into POV expectations in romance. For example, historical romance readers are much more open and accepting of a third-person, past-tense narrator. Think of Julia Quinn’s The Duke and I, which the Netflix series Bridgerton is based on. (This makes me smile, since there’s an “I” in the title, but the novel is third person. That’s how common it is in that subgenre!)

Contemporary romance readers are more accepting of a first-person, present-tense narrator. A classic example is Bridget Jones’s Diary, which is told through journaling.

That’s why it’s important to know exactly what your subgenre is—it’ll determine what your readers expect from the POV established in chapter one. The one narrative style you’ll basically never encounter in romance is omniscience. (This is the godlike narrator who transcends time and space.) In the first chapter, almost all romance readers expect a narrator who’s limited to the minds of one or both main characters.

Thrillers

Almost universally, thriller readers expect the first chapter to bring us into the everyday world of our main character. Establishing this baseline of normality is especially important at the start of a thriller, because our main character’s entire world will soon be thrown upside down. This genre also lends itself to scene and carnal details because of its visceral, life-threatening nature.

Like romance, POV expectations can vary by subgenre—legal thrillers tend to feature third person more often than psychological thrillers. Because thrillers tend to be based around the main character getting to “the Truth” and the villain trying to kill them before they arrive at “the Truth,” the genre lends itself to limited narrators. That is, in many thrillers we only know as much as the main character knows.

A great example of how POV is affected by genre is psychological thrillers. This subgenre frequently features first-person POVs because psychological thrillers are about the fragmenting sanity of a struggling main character. As you can probably guess, this subgenre is especially devoted to a limited POV—limited to our main character’s head—because we’re always so deeply inside their psyche.

Two of the most famous psychological thrillers are Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train, both of which utilize first-person limited POV to great effect.

Another expectation in the first chapter of a thriller is establishing—or at least suggesting—a threat to your main character. This genre is all about physical threat, and readers will be expecting at least a hint of what’s to come.

Science Fiction

Science fiction often features worlds different from our own, which makes establishing the main character’s everyday life extra-important in chapter one. We may not even be on Earth, which means sci-fi writers have to carefully thread in worldbuilding, establish the rules of a strange, possibly alien world, without overwhelming readers with information.

That said, the best science fiction isn’t too heavy-handed when it comes to worldbuilding. Dune, Fahrenheit 451, Foundation—these novels pull readers in with intrigue and complex characters as well as a world they can be curious about. The story and characters must almost always be at the forefront, especially in this first chapter, for a novel to have a chance of capturing readers.

Like the other genres I’ve discussed, sci-fi readers’ expectations around POV vary based on subgenre. But on the whole, sci-fi is much more open-minded to omniscient narration. You can imagine which subgenres of sci-fi lend themselves to certain types of POV, though. For example, post-apocalyptic science fiction is dominated by first-person-limited because the novels in that subgenre function a lot like thrillers.

Fantasy

Like science fiction, fantasy often brings us to new and strange lands that necessitate worldbuilding in order to establish the rules of the writer’s universe. Enough of this has to be achieved in chapter one to simultaneously ground readers without overwhelming them, while also intriguing them with the intricacies of the novel’s world or—more likely—the characters and story unfolding within it.

As with all the genres I’ve discussed, fantasy expectations vary hugely based on subgenre, from epic fantasy to urban fantasy. From the outset, readers will have certain expectations based on how you market your book. For instance, epic fantasy implies a grand journey or saga, and readers will expect you to begin laying the groundwork for that from the start.

An example would be George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones, the first book in his epic Song of Ice and Fire series. This novel opens with a prologue featuring two watchmen who’ve gone beyond the wall, and we see them killed by mysterious, malevolent creatures. This primes readers for many things, but the biggest among them is the implicit promise that our main characters will have to contend with these magical creatures by the end of the series. It implies a huge, epic story.

 

Conclusion

If it isn’t clear by now, a significant aspect of writing a great first chapter is understanding what readers want and expect in any given genre. If you’re writing literary fiction, many of the rules that apply to romance, thrillers, sci-fi, fantasy, and other genres simply don’t apply. But when writing genre fiction, reader expectations are often extremely specific. This is why it’s so valuable to “do your research” by reading the bestselling books in your chosen genre.

The fundamentals of fiction are crucial to a great first chapter, but so is knowing your genre. Go forth, read, read, read, and then write a brilliant first chapter.

 

About the author: Shavonne Clarke is an urban fantasy author of eighteen novels (as S.W. Clarke) and a fiction editor. She’s the founder of Motif Edits, which provides editing services for indie writers. You can contact her at shavonne@motifedits.com.

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6 comments on “The Secret to an Unputdownable First Chapter
  1. Great article. Sadly, my suspense novella does not apply to the rules, even though I had read Gone Girl and Girl on the Train. I shall have to reread them.

  2. This beginning ‘class’ came at a Perfectly needed time for me and is saving me from ruining a perfect night for others and myself. I hope to write the first chapter of my first novella based on your sound and intriguing principles! Kudos and hugs for showing up at just the right time! Except to hear about a partial hummingbird to show up in my novella instead of an angel. Just like YOU showed up this magic evening toward the end of May!

  3. This post was unputdownable! Excellent points – and the first from this site that I had to bookmark to come back to! Thank you!

  4. Is it compelling? Is it emphatic? Essentially, these are the two things a good first chapter achieves. Everything else is a gimmick.

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