I, like most readers, want to know a book will deliver before I buy; that inside the cover is a magnetic pull, a magical spell that I will fall under. And the first test is what comes from chapter one.
I’m sure you’ve read the other #c1blitz blogs about crafting the perfect chapter one, so I’m being a bit different by showing you how not to write it. (And this advice pretty much works for every chapter that follows, too.)
‘Since the death of his father from a sudden heart attack in 2063 when John was fifteen, it was John’s dream to travel across Australia; exactly what his father never got to do. He set out on the Monday in Adelaide. He had taken the bus then the train and eventually hitchhiked until he arrived in Melbourne. There he made lots of friends who he took the phone numbers of. He got a job as a topless dancer to pay for his flight to...blah blah blah.’
Seriously, filling me in on the events that lead up to your story is boring and pretty pointless. I want action so ditch the bulky back story, select the important history bits and feed me a cheeky snippet or two throughout C1; blend in a clue of how the protagonist got to be here. Take me forward not backward.
Tip: If you’ve written the whole book and you’re wondering whether your C1 is catchy enough, go to chapter two or three, read it, and then reconsider C1. Do you need it? Could one of these later chapters actually be a more active and appropriate start to the story?
‘It was 2065 and Darkville was a small town where few people lived. With only a handful of shops, including a hardware store, supermarket, clothes store and hairdressers, the main street was always quiet. Other roads surrounding the main street were filled with single level houses, all white in colour with one window and a front door. Thick forests enveloped the town; a place Darkville residents never ventured. John lived at number five Blank Street with his mother. Inside there were two bedrooms...blah blah blah.’
It’s important to give me an idea of where and when your story is set, and it’s equally important to engage each of my senses; of the colours, the smells and the sounds of this world. But don’t overload me with pages of scene setting. Again, it’s boring. Blend in some details naturally.
Introduce the protagonist
‘John sat up and pulled the cover aside. He swung his legs to the side of the bed and reached over to check the time. He pressed the button on the top of his Sony alarm clock. 2:20. He knew he wouldn’t be able to get back to sleep, so he stood up and removed his cupcake pyjamas, replacing them with his green velour tracksuit. John was a small chap, five foot four inches to be precise, but he had big muscles as he liked to work out. He had olive skin and a mop of brown curly hair. His blue eyes were friendly, but there was a sadness there lately. He left his bedroom and entered the bathroom for a wash...blah blah blah.’
Of course, I want to visualise the main character and watch what they’re doing, but the odd detail as the story presses forward is sufficient in helping me do this. Blend in character visuals and descriptions naturally.
‘“Hi John, how are you?” Mildred Brown said.
“I’m fine thanks, Mum. How about you?” John replied.
“Oh, not bad. It’s a very dark day here where we live in Darkville today.”
“Isn’t is always? I’ve been looking out the window at the single level houses, hairdresser, hardware store and supermarket, and I heard a lot of the strange noises from the surrounding forests last night.”
“Yes, scary, aren’t they?”
“Yes. Now Dad is dead, I want to travel the world because it was his dream.”
Blah blah blah.’
Dialogue is super important and a great way to press the story forward naturally, but it needs to be real and authentic. Characters need to show their personality through their spoken words. From conversations in C1, I want an idea of who these people are, whether I’m going to like them and what’s potentially going to happen.
‘”John, I want to be your boyfriend,” said Annabel.
Oh no, John thought, I’ve just started dating Christina, her sister. John smiled.
“Did you hear what I said?” Annabel asked.
“So, are we going to be boyfriend girlfriend, or what?”
“Err...OK.” A bead of sweat dripped from John’s brow. How was he going to deal with this? Blah blah blah.’
I need to know a problem is brewing, that some trouble of massive proportions is poking its little head around the corner, that this character you’ve introduced me to is going to have to overcome an issue: the whole point of you writing this book. But don’t just tell me what this is! Dangle a few carrots in my face first. Give me an idea, something that makes me want to turn over the pages whilst I’m making predictions.
Whether you write romance, sci-fi, fantasy or contemporary, or anything else that fills the gaps, the first chapter must tease, it must awaken each of my senses and charge up my brain batteries. Whether it be tame and tender or macabre and manic, C1 has to give me an idea about what’s potentially coming up in the rest of the book. It needs to get me asking questions and making my first predictions.
So in conclusion, by not overloading but blending essential elements together, mixing action, dialogue and description, moving forward at all times, being subtle, and by showing, definitely not telling, then you should have a sparkling chapter one. Pah, easy!