Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Chapter One Check-List: How to Begin Your Novel

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Over the past few months, I've had the opportunity to read several fiction proposals during my internship with Hartline Literary Agency. Some proposals have captured my attention immediately. Others? Not so much. 

Agents and editors receive numerous submissions per week; it's nearly impossible for them to read every word of every proposal that slides across their desk. Because of this, us writers have very little time to make an impression. So how can we write a first chapter that will entice an agent, editor, and/or reading into continuing our story?

Below is a check-list I've created based on common issues I've discovered. When you write your first chapter, ask yourself these questions...

    1. How can I give a hint of the theme or Story Question?

When we pick up a book, we are usually introduced to the story's theme on the back cover and within the first chapter--even if it's subtle.

Think about it. What's the first line of Pride and Predjuice by Jane Austen?:

"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife."

Right away, the reader understands that one of the themes in this book is love and marriage. 

Consider the following opening line in Susan May Warren's The Shadow of Your Smile

"Noelle longed for the redemption that came with a fresh snow."

The author accomplished two things in the above first line: One, she covered the character's inner goal, which is a fresh start. (We'll discuss goals in the next point.) Two, she gave a hint of the book's theme, which is, as you may have guessed, redemption.

     2. What is my main character's goal? 

As a character-driven writer, I struggled with crafting a tangible goal for Selena in Purple Moon, one
that would set the plot into motion. In fact, I wrote the entire first draft without giving her a clear inner and outer goal in the first chapter and throughout the novel. Big mistake! Thankfully, an award-winning novelist--whom I highly respect--read over the early version and suggested I give Selena a goal.

At first, I struggled with this concept. What kind of goal? Why can't it just be about Selena staying with her aunt and uncle over the summer while her mom is in rehab?

Here's why: If the story isn't centered around your protagonist reaching toward something, the book can turn passive very quickly. This means the events in your book will happen to your protagonist as she walks through her every day life. Instead, the scenes should result from his/her attempt to reach the goal.

The reader needs to have a reason to root for the main character. Otherwise, they won't have the motivation to continue reading. 

Simply put: Without a goal, there's no story. 

    3. How can the first chapter end in a way that will prompt readers to continue reading?

Does the first chapter end with a cliff-hanger? Do you include the story's Doorway of No Return, or perhaps even the Inciting Incident? Does it leave the reader with a promise of a journey, of an adventure they can't resist? Does it end in trouble/conflict, or the hint of conflict to come?

    4. Does the scene open in action and conflict? Are the scenes active instead of passive?

Many beginning writers start their first chapter with the main character living her day-to-day life: She hits the "off" button on the alarm. Gets out of bed. Makes breakfast. Takes a shower. Brushes her teeth. Goes to school. 

While the first chapter should begin with the main character in his/her Home World (the character's daily life), readers don't need to know about her every detail. The reason they picked up your book to begin with is because they wanted an escape from their own uninteresting life, and they hope to find adventure through the exciting journey of your character. And how do we create these irresistible, hard-to-put-down stories? By weaving in action and conflict.

In Purple Moon, the book opens with Selena arriving at her aunt and uncle's home, which is where she has to stay for the summer while her mom is in rehab. It doesn't begin with her sitting around, reflecting her life, easing the reader into her journey; instead, the reader is dropped into the story in the midst of action. Conflict soon arises from Selena's longing to return home to Brooklyn rather than being forced to stay at her snobby cousin's for the summer, waiting for her mom to return from rehab.

    5. Does it include an interruption to the character's daily life?

The beginning of every book should include an interruption to the protagonist's Home World within
the first chapter. This is also known as the Doorway of No Return, or a major problem that arises in your protagonist's daily life. 

The Inciting Incident is the event that results from this Doorway--the one that sparks the story into motion. The character is either forced into taking this journey, or she makes the decision in an effort to reach her goal. Either way, the Inciting Incident is typically the "adventure" your protagonist will take throughout the course of the novel in an effort to reach his/her goal. This is what will result in character change.

In the Wizard of Oz, for instance, the Doorway of No Return was the tornado--a huge interruption to Dorothy's Home World. The Inciting Incident occurred when she arrived in the land of Oz. The story, then, follows the course of her striving to return home. 


When your proposal meets the desk of an agent or an editor, you have very little time to make a good impression. Craft your first chapter in a way that not only sets the tone of your story, but does so in a way that lures readers into flipping to the next page. This can be accomplished through weaving in the following: action, conflict, hints of the theme, active scenes, a proactive main character, a disturbance, and the promise of a journey.

Chapter One Check-List: How to Begin Your Novel via @tessaemilyhall #writingtips #amwriting

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Does your first chapter include all of the above? Which one is the hardest for you to incorporate into your first chapter?

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  1. Well, I think I include #3-5 in my first chapter :P Great checklist that I'll be saving for future reference. My first chapter still needs a LOT of work D:

    1. Haha, I usually rewrite my first chapter dozens of times before I feel that it's right. That's the beautiful thing about writing -- it's never "set in stone" until it's published. =)

      Glad you enjoyed the post!


  2. For both my WIPs I need to refine or rewrite the fierst chapter, but I have the basics down. In one a stranger turns up at my MC's door and has a secret to tell her, but she isn't supposed to talk to strangers.
    In the other I have a party and a girl who feels somewhat alone, despite having many people flocking around her, and then her grandfather, the head of the country suddenly collapses.
    I don't think I'm so good at showing the main characters goal, it's one of my weak points in general.

    1. Sometimes, the main character’s external goal isn’t clear until after the inciting incident.

      For instance, in The Wizard of Oz, it wasn’t until Dorothy landed in Oz that she strived to go back home. However, the first chapter should at least portray the main character’s inner need. In Wizard of Oz, Dorothy’s inner need was to find a place called home. Then, the Inciting Incident is what launched her into this inner quest. But it wasn’t until the Inciting Incident that she created the external goal as well.

      Hope that makes sense!



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