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Monday, June 25, 2012

You Had Me at Hello: The Importance of the First Chapter (ConCarolinas 2012 Writing Panel Notes)

"Pixel Says Hi" Photo © Laura Sheana Taylor. No catnip was involved, I swear.

This set of notes was mostly a round table discussion. Because of how the chat flowed, I've kept it as is, and attributed speakers where possible.

* * *

 You Had Me at Hello
Panelists: Rachel A. Aaron, Jim S. Bernheimer, David B. Coe / D.B. Jackson, 
Gray Rinehart, Faith Hunter, Kalayna Price, Edmund Schubert
Moderator: James Maxey

The first chapter doesn’t have to get you excited if you know the author,  but that’s not usually the case.

By the end of the first chapter, you should have your reader completely hooked.

What’s important?

ES (editor of e-zine Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show): In short stories, first lines are more important, less time to get the attention of a reader. Especially first lines that don’t make sense on first read. Start with something on the surface that doesn’t make sense; that gets his attention.

GR (“Slushmaster General”, in charge of slushpile submissions at Baen Books): The advantage of a published book is that we can pick up the book and read the back of it. That advantage is not available when reading what’s being submitted to the slush pile. So to him, the voice in the opening really matters. Your first line is critical; the one after that almost as much. Same with the first paragraph, the first page, the first chapter. Customers often make the decision to buy based on the first page or two.

RA: The primary purpose of the first line is to get the reader to read the second line. To get them to read the rest of the story. Through voice, odd first line, other ways. She gives a writer three sentences – downloads the Kindle first chapter. Then makes her decision whether to read/buy based on that.

JB: Don’t give weather reports. Don’t have a long build up , a slow burn, a meandering prologue. Give it a running start. The reader will catch up as the character does. Give the reader something about the character that they want to know, they want to find out, so they’ll keep reading. Create interest in the character.

DBC: Don’t give it a cinematic start, where you zoom down onto the scene omnisciently. Omniscient is not a good voice; editors frown on it. Establish the voice and the character. Start in someone’s point of view. That’s what matters. E.g. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: two scenes in quick succession (a bank heist, a poker game). At the end of those two scenes, you have an idea of exactly how the two characters will play out.

FH: Don’t open with wakeup, bad news. Start in media res. Find a beginning that grabs voice, character, point of view, setting, and tone, and go with it.

KP:  In your first chapter, something major has to change. The inciting incident should happen by the end of the first chapter.

DBC: Disagrees – establish something with the character and do something to get the story started. You don’t necessarily have to introduce the major conflict.

FH: Yes you do.

GR: Doesn’t have to be the *main* conflict, but something that tells us everything we need to know.

ES: Yes, Indiana Jones does this – the first scene has nothing to do with the conflict, but it sets up his character.

What else?

Be prepared to change your opening:
- You may need to backtrack, may need to introduce character and narrative correctly (balance it)
- When you finish your book, look at that first chapter again.  Be able to go back and look at it again.
- There’s always more than one way to do a scene. Do not be afraid to throw away good words for great words.

RA: At the start of Avengers, there’s two throwaway minutes of Loki doing bad stuff. Then he doesn’t have to go back and show why he’s doing bad stuff.

KP: Starts with a stranger, snarky opening (has been asked to tone it down some)

ES: To work with a story, it’s not so much rewriting as it is restructuring or tightening. It must be really close and he really wants to publish it – he takes great raw material and polishes it. He respects that it’s the writer’s story, not his.

GR: Sometimes you need to restructure the novel to tell a better story.

RA: Best writing came from a blog about writing for comics – Is this moment you’re starting with the most interesting moment in your character’s life? If not, why not? Start with the moment the boulder starts rolling down the hill, when everything’s supposed to start going wrong.

KP: Establish character, establish voice – make it interesting and snappy, establish the tone of the novel.

JB: Bangs out first chapter right away because it’ll be the part he’ll spend most time on, but he won’t know the first word until the last word is written. BUT he dresses first chapter like it’s going out on a date (in revisions). Not much room to slack off in the frist chapter. Entire book should also be treated well

You have a contract with reader in the first chapter – you show that you know how to write, that it’s worth reading, that it’s clear and not confusing and intriguing (doesn’t give it all away)

DBC: Slightly disagrees – Will spend as much time on the first paragraph as he will on the entire rest of the first chapter as he’ll spend on the next four or five chapters. However, this can lead to winding up hating them because those chapters are overworked and not necessarily as flowing. Not that the first chapter shouldn’t be polished, just that you shouldn’t obsess about it too much. There’s a balance between refining it to the point of it shines and editing it too much.

JB: Works on a lot of anthologies. He puts the best story in the second or third slot, and the second-best story in the last slot.

RA: You won’t know the right way to start the book until after you’ve written it. Even if you have to rewrite it five times. You learn as you go.

JB: Each book is a puzzle, has a “right” way of telling it. You won’t know until you start. What works for one book probably won’t apply to the next book. Don’t stress out about the beginning. The last line of the book is where the editor decies whether or not to buy the book. Make sure you get a good story with a good ending because the entire book. Don’t put all of your egs in that one book

RA: Don’t strive for perfection. If you strive to make it perfect,  you’ll be unhappy. Just learn to say when good enough is good enough. We have so many books in us and it’s stupid to waste time.


  1. Thanks for posting this, LS. Right in time for me to take another look at this first chapter. ^_^