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Seriously, what is it with the first chapter?
Posted: Monday, April 25, 2011 4:57 PM
Joined: 3/15/2011
Posts: 14

I'm starting my fourth or fifth revision of my opening chapter for Hubris - changing the POV and the overall tone of the scene. I need to do this because even after all my earlier revisions, it's the weakest part of the book. I had this same problem with my first novel, too. 

So I'm wondering - is it just me, or do you folks have this much difficulty starting off your story? Is it hard because there's so much pressure on those first few pages to hook potential agents/editors/buying readers? How do you deal with that pressure?

Michael L Martin Jr
Posted: Monday, April 25, 2011 8:58 PM
Joined: 4/3/2011
Posts: 23

Good questions. I suffer from the same issue. A few days ago I rewrote the opening to my first chapter, and I've already revised it countless times.

Sometimes I wonder if we are (or maybe just I am) over-thinking it. There's so much weight placed on the first chapter/first paragraph/first sentence while taste and subjectivity are often left unacknowledged.

I have to remind myself that although one kind of opening will capture the attention of a certain reader, that same opening will cause another reader to close the book without reading further. It'll never be a one-size-fit-all type of deal. That's what makes it so difficult.

I just try to go with my gut and do what I feel is "right" in that particular iteration, and hopefully a Beta can point out my missteps before it goes out. After that, I guess you have to just stand by your story and hope for the best.
Posted: Tuesday, April 26, 2011 12:59 PM
Joined: 3/14/2011
Posts: 51

I have the opposite problem. First chapters come easy to me. It's last chapters that take me ages. In fact, I've developed a strategy for getting through them: in the first draft, the ending doesn't matter, just end it. Usually, in the month or two I take off before I start revisions, I come up with a better ending anyway. (Not sure if that would work for first chapters, but if you're not taking time between revisions, that might be a place to start.)
Posted: Tuesday, April 26, 2011 2:55 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 224

I am working on a rewrite at the moment. I wrote 22,000 words before I finally got the inspiration for my chapter one. That said, I am extremely glad I waited, starting more towards the middle or end of the book. Because of what I wrote later, I was able to find the ideal chapter one for the story -- the moment where the story *truly* begins.

Often I struggle with the first chapter, or write something that is inherently 'junk' that needs ditched.

This is, honestly, the first chapter one that I have written that will likely survive through general edits.
Posted: Tuesday, April 26, 2011 7:46 PM
Joined: 3/29/2011
Posts: 25

The first chapter is the most important because it's what convinces your reader to keep reading. Editing it can be agonizing.

For my last project, the first chapter came easy to me. The very first scene was what inspired me to write the story in the first place, so that first chapter was really exciting.

The project I'm working on now was harder. The main character is quite a bit different from me and it was difficult to really get a feel for her at first. I'm working on the last few chapters now and I finally have her figured out, but the first few chapters were really tough. We'll see what happens in editing
Alexander Hollins
Posted: Wednesday, April 27, 2011 10:45 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 416

I'm great with beginnings and endings. its the MIDDLE that sucks my balls.

Jessie Kwak
Posted: Thursday, April 28, 2011 5:18 AM
Joined: 3/29/2011
Posts: 27

@Alexander, so you enjoy writing the middle, then? Because that sounds....pleasant?

I'm like you, RJBlain, it always takes me a ridiculous amount of writing time to get to the beginning chapter. But once I'm there, it's generally cool.

It's just when I get to the middle that my characters all start to wander off and try to tell their own stories, with blatant disregard for what I had planned. I mean, come on guys. Who's got actual fingers and a keyboard here? Can you type your own story? I didn't think so. You're nothing without me!

After I'm done ranting at them, though, I usually find out that they're making the more interesting and in-character decisions.

Like they're so smart.

Posted: Friday, April 29, 2011 11:57 PM
Joined: 3/15/2011
Posts: 14

Hmm, interesting responses all. What I find is that it's rarely what actually *happens* in the first chapter that I have trouble with; it's more nebulous things like character and tone that keep it from working. Probably because you don't really know what your tone is until you've already finished the book.

I'm with Jessie on those lousy free-thinking characters, though. Think they're so big.
Posted: Sunday, May 1, 2011 4:37 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 103

I have the opposite problem, my stories start strong but I SUCK at endings.

The best resource I've seen on beginnings is Hooked : write fiction that grabs readers at page one and never lets them go by Les Edgerton
Posted: Thursday, May 26, 2011 9:56 PM
Joined: 3/16/2011
Posts: 216

I have a theory that Chapter One is where a lot of writers choke, and a lot of this might be psychological.

For freelance writers, it’s the first couple of sentences of a feature or other type of article. I took an entire workshop on writing a lede, complete with editors working with me on which ledes were strong and which ones blew. I came away knowing the difference, but this is not to say that writing ledes ever gets easier.

I used to play concert piano, and during the course of my (very abbreviated) career, I can also attest that the first measures of a piece were the most difficult to execute, always – even when playing chamber music. We all felt it.

Chapter One is the hook. It’s what draws readers into the story. Writers know instinctively that this chapter is MEGA-IMPORTANT. And I believe that when a writer feels that internal pressure – almost like stage fright -- it’s very difficult to think about Chapter One reasonably.

Jack Whitsel
Posted: Friday, May 27, 2011 4:33 AM
Joined: 5/7/2011
Posts: 35

When it comes to the first chapter, I'm like one of those movie trailers with the deep voice. I'm gonna grab your attention and promise you the world. Don't concern yourself with backstory. Dazzle the reader. The first three pages should have the tempo of the teaser on the back of the novel. And don't punish yourselves with too much analysis. Shoot from the hip then inquire feedback .
Posted: Monday, June 13, 2011 7:33 PM
Joined: 3/16/2011
Posts: 216

I am in the process of revising Chapter One.

And it's kicking my a$$ all over the place.

I wish there were a computer program that would just generate the perfect first chapter.

Hate these!

That is all for today ...
L R Waterbury
Posted: Monday, June 13, 2011 11:43 PM
Joined: 4/28/2011
Posts: 60

Hah! If there was a computer program for that, we'd all be out of jobs or wanna-be jobs.

Strangely, I find it much easier to write first chapters than later chapters partly because my imagination tends to get kick-started by beginnings. For reasons I do not comprehend, the spark of creativity in my mind just tends to be ignited by story openings ... and not so much by closings. I have always struggled with writing the ends of things, whether fiction or theses/dissertations.

Of course, my first chapters may not actually be any good. They just FEEL good. I am a terrible judge of my own writing.
Tawni Peterson
Posted: Wednesday, June 15, 2011 7:29 AM
Joined: 5/10/2011
Posts: 69

@Lisa I am looking forward to reading your revisions, as well as any other new stuff on RSR. Been wondering about Gage and Sabrina and how they are gonna manage all that chemistry
Tawni Peterson
Posted: Wednesday, June 15, 2011 8:03 AM
Joined: 5/10/2011
Posts: 69

My apologies for the typo. I inteded to type *SSR, not, RSR. Staying up way too late on BC.
Robert C Roman
Posted: Wednesday, June 15, 2011 5:03 PM
Joined: 3/12/2011
Posts: 383

I've had a similar problem with openings.

In addition, the advice I've heard differs quite a bit as well, and some of it is... counterproductive. I've heard 'always start with the action scene', I've heard 'always start with an emotional scene', and I've heard...

Yeah. The advice varies wildly, and the problem is that the only one I've seen that is consistent is 'you need to draw the reader in'; yet there isn't a sure way to do that, because no two readers are the same, nor are any two stories the same.
Toni Wyatt
Posted: Wednesday, June 15, 2011 5:04 PM
Joined: 4/26/2011
Posts: 53

The dreaded first chapter, ugh! I've re-written the first chapter on one of my manuscripts several times. First it was a prologue...I scraped it, condensed it, spread it out over the entire manuscript and made a Chapter 1. I've ripped it apart and put it back together again for what seems like a million times. I had a beta reader read it for the first time in several years, and she thought it was completely different, but better. It is a neverending process. I wonder if published works still make their authors want to revise? Erg.
Stevie McCoy
Posted: Wednesday, June 15, 2011 7:55 PM
Joined: 5/5/2011
Posts: 38

The first chapter woes actually extend to the first 5,000 word woes for me. Seems like it takes me that amount to really get into the book, and I am alright with that. My motto is get in, get dirty, and worry about clean up later.

Stop worring about the 1st chapter until the whole story is out on the paper and sometimes you may realize you didnt actually need the first chapter to begin with but it is what got you to where you are. So toss it if necessary or revise the poop out of it but first chapters are there to get your mojo going and that, in my opinion, is their main purpose for me at least.
Posted: Thursday, June 16, 2011 3:29 AM
Joined: 3/16/2011
Posts: 216


I prolly won't put up any more of SSR except to post revisions (coming soon!). But, you can read "out-takes" from it on my blog that I posted for Book Country folks only:


The super-sekrit password is: KCAP (in all caps).

Honestly, the way my "revised" Chapter One has been going for the past THREE NIGHTS, I would rather stick my hand in a running garbage disposal rather than touch it again. For the most part, I still feel like I'm going nowhere on the first page, and that's what counts the most.

Tawni Peterson
Posted: Thursday, June 16, 2011 5:54 AM
Joined: 5/10/2011
Posts: 69

Thanks for letting me in on the sekrit. I thoroughly enjoyed the "out-take." They [Gage and Sabrina] are such fun to read. I honestly have fallen asleep pondering how they are going to make sense of their connection. No brown nose here, just the honest truth.

If it makes you feel any better, I just revised Ch.1 of Hindsight....took me two weeks. I am still not satisfied. Ahh the glorious dissatisfaction of the artist. :- /

I do have a thought, should you care to indulge me...
You are such a dialogue virtuoso, why not start there? All the backstory draws us a fantastic picture. There are several specific little details that you work into the first page, but what if we got into the phone call with Molly soonerl? I am sure you have beat the options to death, but your skill with dialogue is such an asset, I would put it to use earlier.

Just a thought that you are obviously free to toss out the window along with any other well-meaning but sadly mis-guided suggestions.

Either way, you will get there. They are fun, endearing characters that jump off the page and I look forward to reading more of their story.
Posted: Thursday, June 16, 2011 7:41 AM
Joined: 3/16/2011
Posts: 216


Moving up the phone conversation was exactly what I did, LOL!

But ... my problem is the lede. The lede, the lede! I cannot think of a catchy first couple of sentences for love or money. I'm just going to keep trying until I get it right. I want that perfect first sentence.

And thank you so much for your kind compliments. I never thought I had a knack for dialogue, but apparently some experience in my past paid off. (Dunno what.)

Sadly, I have to part ways with a lot of the m.s. to make space for the substantive matter (and keep word count within limits), so I'll be posting what I cut to Le Sekrit Area of Le Blog.
Tawni Peterson
Posted: Wednesday, June 22, 2011 6:37 AM
Joined: 5/10/2011
Posts: 69


Hah! It could be said that great minds think alike. In fact, I think it has been said

I empathize with your want for perfection. OH how I empathize.

Its all in the details. Unfortunately, in my mind, the details tend to fill themselves in and show up when they darn well please. Perhaps I should consider the use of a muse. Hmmmm...
Danielle Poiesz
Posted: Thursday, June 23, 2011 2:54 PM
@Stevie I agree with your suggestion not to worry about polishing the first chapter until you have the whole down on paper. Of course, if you want to make major plot changes based on feedback, then I'm all for revising to accommodate those before proceeding. Otherwise, you have way too much pulling apart of your first draft to do.

My feeling is that it's important to start the story the way you want to so you can continue it, then go back when you have fresher eyes and a better sense of where the story leads. That's when you can get down to the nitty-gritty--make sure the language sparkles, your tone and voice are strong and clear, and your characters are interesting.
Posted: Thursday, June 23, 2011 2:58 PM
Joined: 3/4/2011
Posts: 11

I'm seriously considering pulling Citizen in the Wilds and putting it on the shelf for a while because the first chapter needs SO much work. It's simply lacking punch. There's no real hook for pages.

I agree that the story should begin the way you want it to continue, but you also need to grab hold of your reader's attention... especially if that reader is an agent!
Danielle Poiesz
Posted: Thursday, June 23, 2011 4:18 PM
That's true, BlueInkAlchemist. But don't forget--this is a work-in-progress site and everyone reading your book knows that it's still being revised and smoothed out. Agents and editors can tell when a book and/or author has promise, even if the piece isn't yet perfect. You'd be surprised how much work a lot of books that DO get picked up still need!
Posted: Thursday, June 23, 2011 6:09 PM
Joined: 3/16/2011
Posts: 216


I wish I could tell you an easy way to write a hook. When I'm writing a feature article -- or anything else work-related -- I've always saved the lede until the very end, because chances are excellent that I'm going to find a strong tie-in to the first few sentences somewhere in my story.

Fiction writing is very different ...

I just wish someone could explain why chapter ones are so difficult to write from a psychological perspective (and back it up with studies!) so I wouldn't feel like so befuddled when I attempt them.

Here's what's really annoying: having editors who say, "Oh, here ya go, here's a good lede -- see?" And they craft a wonderful first hook, and everything comes up roses for everyone except the poor writer who's sitting there thinking, "Now, why didn't I think of that?"
Posted: Thursday, June 23, 2011 7:00 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 6

I'm just joining the conversation, but wanted to say that I long ago lost count of how many times my first chapter has been revised. And the first paragraph??? And the first line??? Let's just say I've been working on this novel on and off for four years. I'm satisfied with the first chapter now, but I'm sure I'll take a look at it one day and think, "Oh, I could tighten this up here." Or, "What in the HELL was I thinking?" It's never done until it's done and my dream agent/editor says, "STOP."
Tabetha Waite
Posted: Wednesday, June 29, 2011 3:19 AM
Joined: 4/26/2011
Posts: 22

I completely understand having problems with the first chapter. For me, it seems that I want it to sound 'just right' that I focus more on any 'issues', rather than keep a good flow with the rest of my story. The pressure of knowing those first few lines can be what it takes for you to hook the reader can be frustrating, but I just try to remember that writing is something that I love doing and that all authors struggle from time to time. Before long, you'll find a groove that works for you!
Steve Yudewitz
Posted: Wednesday, June 29, 2011 4:26 AM
Joined: 4/28/2011
Posts: 24

Chapter 1 is always tough.My first chapter is usually the most polarizing piece of whatever project I'm working on. If I show chapter 1 to 10 people who I know give honest, constructive feedback, 6 like it, 1 is neutral, and 3 hate it with the venomous rage usually reserved for mass murderers and DMV clerks.

The advice I get is contradictory. One person will say "The first line had me hooked." Another will say, "you really should start at the third paragraph because everything before that is weak." The chapter's pacing is somehow both too plodding and too frenetic, while the detail is simultaneously too cumbersome and too sparse.

I think I try to do too much with my first chapter. I want to quickly create a sense of place, provide some back story, set up later action and allow the reader to get to know the characters in 10 pages or less.

After all the agony of fine tuning chapter 1 based on suggestions from other writers, it ends up in the trash heap with the next rewrite. Chapter 4 becomes the new chapter 1. Maybe I should focus on getting chapter 4 perfect instead of chapter 1,

Posted: Monday, July 18, 2011 11:32 PM
Joined: 3/15/2011
Posts: 14

I had an interesting conversation with a fellow writer recently about a book we both really liked. What struck me about the book was that its first chapter did a lot of the things I've always heard you're not supposed to do - it mostly told, instead of showing, using a lot of summary and not even starting a scene right away. And yet I was hooked right away. What gives?

My friend pointed out that maybe what really draws people in - and what drew me in to this particular book - was not the setting or plot or anything, but character. The distinctive voice of the narrator seemed to be what hooked me; plot and setting take time to explain, during which the reader's attention can wander, but character can be established almost immediately if you choose the right words and tone (it helps if you're a really, really good writer, of course).

I'm sure this only applies to some novels, but I gave it a shot with mine - I changed the POV of the first chapter so we could hear the thoughts of the more immediately interesting character. I think it worked a lot better. Anyone else tried this?
E D Johnson
Posted: Friday, July 22, 2011 5:43 AM
Joined: 6/11/2011
Posts: 18

To me, the hardest part about the first chapter is deciding WHERE the story as a whole starts. Sure, you can have a cool premise, neat character, great plot arch, twists galore, and evocative narrative, but if you start when the MC is a kid and the plot happens when he's 50, well... Ok, "Up" did that, but most of us will not get away with it. Picking the exact "jump off" moment is the key to nailing the first chapter, I think.

To be specific, my WIP starts with the MC getting kidnapped. Why? Cuz seriously, her life was basically boring before that moment, and readers do not want her boring life. They want the "Oh crap" stuff that is going to happen after the kidnapping, because that is exciting. My muse did attempt to get me to start the story when the MC was sixteen, but the story morphed so incredibly trying to do that that I told her no. A risky move to tell a muse no, but the story I wanted to tell needed to start at twenty-four, not sixteen.

The suggestions about how to do the first chapter (action, movement, development, etc.) derive from agents more than readers, I suspect. Readers that pick up, buy, and take home a book will probably read it unless you REALLY messed up. An agent will only read the first chapter or two in most cases. They want excitement to get them out of the doldrums of slush that they have been reading for the last six weeks straight. It is THIS situation that truly requires the hook, the action, the movement, the rapid-fire characterization and world building. Because if you do not get an agent to read more than chapter one, you won't get an agent. Odds are, if you don't get an agent, you probably will not clear the hurdles of the traditional publishing arena.

For self-publishing, you can do whatever you like, but you have to live with the results. If the book does not sell well because of your first chapter (especially if that is your SAMPLE for epubbing), then you revise it and sales go up... Well, that means your first chapter was not very good.

IF you have a few reliable, intelligent friends that do not mind reading your chapter a few times and giving reliable, critical feedback, I find that works well (and there are dozens of those types here!). I revised my first SENTENCE of my WIP at least 50 times, and STILL had people say it wasn't good.

In the end, whether the first chapter is perfect or crap, I refer to the writer mantra: "Keep writing." Some times, you just gotta stop revising and keep forging ahead!
Michelle Mills
Posted: Sunday, September 11, 2011 3:44 PM
Joined: 7/21/2011
Posts: 41

I've been revising my first chapter over the past week. GRUELLING, but worth the overhaul.

I struggled with something that seems to be a common theme for first chapters—too much backstory. A big fat info dump. No matter how hard I tried to cut this stuff out, I couldn't do it. I realized the events my MC was reflecting on were more important to her and my storyline, than her current dilemna (which also needs to happen). This awareness didn't solve my problem though, in keeping my plot moving forward.

After much frustration and inner debate, I decided to move my initial chapter back in time, converting reflections of the past into present events. It's a ton of work and sends a rippling effect into my first three or four chapters (more revisions), but I'm pleased with how it's coming along. It also tips the scales in favour of showing vs. telling.

@E D Johnson, you are exactly right. "Picking the exact 'jump off point' is key to nailing the first chapter."

It was great to read everyone's responses to this thread, and realize I'm not alone in First Chapter Hell

Happy writing everyone!


Posted: Friday, September 30, 2011 6:07 PM
Joined: 9/30/2011
Posts: 3

The author found himself confused over how to start his novel. He struggled over what to write into chapter one. He closed his eyes and saw his protagonist and then saw off to the side millions of readers who were about to be introduced to the protagonist. The readers wanted to see the Protagonist struggle so he could reveal something about his ability, his character, his beliefs, his weakness and his strength. The author then realized he did not understand his character well enough to answer these questions, so he went and played creatively with his five year old Autistic daughter, trying hit and miss, to see what she was thinking about today, what kind of person she was today, always a struggle for dad. Dad saw strengths and weaknesses in his daughter, and her emerging character, and her wonderful abilities. Later, after hugs and blankets goodnight to daughter, dad went back to write not really thinking about much. But what he had not realized was his mind was indeed somewhere ‘offline’ working the Protagonist problem, because as soon as began tapping keystrokes, the Protagonist appeared in full light in his mind’s eye. There were his wide blue eyes, his sandy greasy hair, his gaunt strong frame, the years of struggle that had already began to show on the demeanor and actions of 17 year old character who appeared in dark water, swimming with his cohorts, all terrorists to provoke the series of conflicts that would build up to the impending inciting incident. With each revision, dad sharpened the focus of his magnifying glass, seeing the Protagonist even closer still, and finally inhabited the scene so he could relive those opening moments as he introduced his protagonist to his readers. Finally, it seemed as reading the first chapter let the reader share the experience with the protagonist, and the first draft was done, at least for now.
Posted: Tuesday, June 25, 2013 10:31 AM
Joined: 4/29/2011
Posts: 1

The first chapter is important.

In the well known short story the opening is with a 'hook' that captures the readers' attention in say seven seconds.


But in the novel there can exist several 'hooks' introduced in such a way that the reader cannot  help but wonder what is going on. (He does not know the 'why').


So decide what 'hooks' you will use and write them into you chapter one opening. In that way you've lit the fuse and as the reader moves through the opening there is 'fatal ignition' as each 'hook' results in those explosive moment.


Study the opening to each Bond film and see if you know everything right from the start. The intrigue draws the viewers in.

Posted: Tuesday, July 2, 2013 9:58 PM
When I got serious about publishing Midnight,  I got serious about my writing and a bunch of other stuff. So much so that I hacked off the first eight chapters of my story. No joke. Totally trashed them and started over from scratch. One thing I learned is that you sit down and you write. You don't worry about how anything looks or sounds. You just write. Worry about all that other stuff later. Otherwise you're going to do nothing but sit there editing that first chapter over and over and not getting anything else done.
Posted: Thursday, July 25, 2013 6:00 AM
Joined: 7/23/2013
Posts: 5

First Chapters should be the most energetic part of the book. It's setting the tone. If it lags too much, readers won't go further. I think there is a such thing as overwriting and over-worrying.
Mari Adkins
Posted: Thursday, July 25, 2013 1:43 PM

Personally, I think the current market puts entirely too much emphasis on having a perfect first line, first paragraph, first page, first chapter.

I think what Quinn needs to do is focus on finishing his story. Just getting it all done and on paper - or pixels. Then going back and reading it as a whole and see how it all flows together.


Then worry about how the opening works. 

Nevena Georgieva
Posted: Thursday, July 25, 2013 5:11 PM
Joined: 2/9/2012
Posts: 438

Mari, I can't agree more. I recently interviewed a historical fiction debut author for the BC blog, and she said that tinkering with the details & trying to make everything perfect in draft no. 1 is first-time novelists' biggest mistake. Her # 1 Rule is "Just go forward!" Finish the first draft, and THEN you can go back, re-write & polish your prose. 

Mari Adkins
Posted: Thursday, July 25, 2013 6:07 PM

Very much so! It's something I learned the hard way.


I actually started Midnight in 1996. I must have rewritten the prologue and first two chapters at least a squillion times over the next six years. No joke. I realized what I was doing when I started hanging out with other writers online. That's when I found the "write first, finish later" policy. And it does make such a huge, huge difference.

That's not to say I don't go back and tweak stuff here and there as I go forward. But it is to say that I don't start totally over from scratch just because something isn't working or because someone told me I'd done something wrong or some other silly reason. 


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