How to Write an Addictive First Chapter

One of the best compliments people have given to Exodus is that the first chapter grabs them, and launching them right into the text. So I decided to share how this chapter was crafted.

First of all, before I begin let me say not everyone likes the book. I’m not painting Exodus out to be the second coming of the Lord of the Rings or anything. There has been some constructive feedback that I will apply to future books. In other cases, I have been absolutely shredded by those outraged by the book’s position on religion (no surprise there).

But most of those that say anything seem to like it. Some call it a compulsive read right out of the gate, with nods to the first chapter. And that’s funny to me because I actually deleted the original first chapter ten years ago.

Seriously.

I deleted the whole damn thing.

The original first chapter was overburdened with backfill, the story of how we got to this moment kind of thing. “And through the centuries after the the Great Sickness.” It sucked, and was totally boring.

I read somewhere that every author should lop the first chapter off their text. It’s always important to the author, but rarely to the reader.

The current first chapter was rewritten at least a dozen times. My head tells me more than 20, but I don’t want to exaggerate.

I wanted to create that moment in time when everything gets turned on its head! Novels are usually about something or someone remarkable. Stories always start somewhere, the day in the life kind of thing. Begin when the remarkable events change characters’ lives, and let the book provide the context.

The wounded man crawling down the path toward the the village was rewritten to be that moment. It had to be active. Creating tight sentence structure was critical. I recall repositioning this numerous times. Even this past winter I paired down the chapter to tighten it. And then Jennifer Goode Stevens edited it even further.

The framing was intentionally unusual and menacing, in large part because I wanted to set the tone for the grave danger that forms the premise of the novel (trying not to spoil the plot here). Setting the tone for a book has to occur in first chapter. It needs to convey the general direction of the novel. In the case of Exodus, alarm had to drip off the page, and hopefully it does.

Finally it needs to end with the hook. In Exodus, the danger is revealed and you are left hanging right there. If I couldn’t get you to chapter two and beyond on that opening salvo then I suck as a writer. Straight up.

To me the first paragraph of a novel is the most important one, as is the first chapter. If the novel fails to captivate readers from the get go, it’s highly likely that it will be put down like a bad tasting sandwich. I know I put down books within the first 20 pages if they don’t grab me, and I do that no matter how good the reviews are.

Resonate or collect dust (or ether dust bunnies). What do you think?

7 thoughts on “How to Write an Addictive First Chapter

  1. You’re right. There is a lot of truth to it for new writers. Years ago, I held a writers workshop where we offered to edit the first three chapters of each author’s manuscript. We received about 20 submissions and almost all of them needed the first few pages (if not chapter) edited out of existence.

    Most of the time, the first chapter draft is a novice just warming up. People like to start reading when everything is already red hot.

    • With today’s attention defecits, a writer cannot afford to dally with their own hubris and cleverness. A story must grab someone from the very beginning. I mentioned Kim Stanley Robinson to @ErinFeldman:disqus, and you should just see how 2312 opens up. My God. The book leaps, literally!

  2. I’m often stating that works should begin en media res. In my longer works – even the academic ones – I’ve usually lopped off the first paragraph or reworded it so many times that it no longer resembles the original.

    Writing poetry may help, too. My poems have an undercurrent of narrative, but it’s not the primary thing. I don’t provide explanations for how or why a thing is the way it is. The words, turns, line breaks, tone, and implicit relationships do much of that work.

    • It’s the show and tell that I need to work on. I obviously see how it can be mundane and limiting. At the same time, I am fascinated witht he way folks like Tolkien and Kim Stanley Robinson (today with 2312) get away with this! They are captivating!

      • I’m not sure how Tolkien does it. It’s one reason I stay away from fiction. :-)

        My undergrad professor would be helpful. He always was getting onto us about being concrete and showing rather than telling.

  3. I definitely appreciated the first paragraph, and chapter, and I agreed that it added menace…and a totally unknown menace.

    I read the book. I’m Christian. I still can’t understand why you would get hammered by Christians in this book. Just look to history for the behavior of some religious leaders. I *am* looking forward to how how Malachi’s character is developed.

    • I agree, M. is meant to represent Christianity and takes a prominent role in the second book. But some people see the cover, read the first few chapters and are set in stone on what the book is about, religion bashing (not so). That’s OK, if everyone likes the book, it’s not being read enough!!!

      And thank you!

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