So, you’re writing a novel and you want to make it the best novel you can. This is wonderful! Embarking on the journey of writing a novel is an exciting time, full of possibilities and the magic of the tale yet to come.
You open your new document or notebook. You poise your fingers above the keys, or your pen above the paper. You search for that perfect first word, first sentence, first paragraph. You want the opening that grabs the reader and nails them to your pages. The one that means they won’t want to put your book down; the one that makes publishers throw advance money at you along with a lovely contract.
And you search. And you search. And the blank page remains.
Your characters have their bags packed for the journey you’re about to take them on, but they have yet to take the first step. Because they must take a perfect first step, so that all that follows is also perfect. You search for that, too, and the perfect words to describe it.
And the blank page remains.
It tortures you. Finally, you get a word down, then another, and build it into a first chapter. The perfect opening for your story. Or is it? You stop and stare at it, halt your characters after they have taken that single step, and strive to make sure it’s the perfect first step for their journey.
The truth is that perfection is a trap. It’s a worthy goal, a dream to aspire to, but it should always remain one we are content to never lay our hands on. It is the royalty we wish we were, but know we never will be. It is the riches we strive to make and enjoy, but know we probably never will. You have not failed for never being or having these things, just like you have not failed if you don’t reach that crystalline perfection you strive for in your writing.
So should we not bother to try for it, then? Of course we should try. But perfection, like many things, has its uses and it has its place. The trick is to know when perfection might help you and when it will not.
One place that perfection will not help you is at the start of your story. When you’re sitting there, staring at the blank page, the most important thing is to start writing. And anyone who has ever attempted to write a story will tell you that one of the most intimidating parts of the process is breaking into that first beautiful, pure, utterly blank page.
That first word seems so important. Crafting a great first line is the best way to get your story started, right?
Wrong. Crafting a first line is the best way to start, because then you can write a second one, and a third, and from there, as many as it takes to complete your story. It doesn’t have to be great. It doesn’t even have to be good. It just has to be there, so the rest can come after it, and so your story can flourish into being.
The thing to keep in mind is that the first word you write down is also your first draft, and there will be many drafts before your story is finished. Many chances to adjust it, to refine it, to polish it towards perfection. So when you start your story, it’s key to remind yourself that you can always fix it later.
Give yourself permission to pick an imperfect word. Give yourself permission to be wrong, or to start in the wrong place, or to write in the wrong voice. Give yourself permission to start.
The only way your story will be written is if you start: get past that first blank page and onto the next. After that, get past the first chapter and onto the second, and so on.
But even then, many writers pause and reassess the opening to their story. Is the first chapter right? Is there a better one they could write? What is the perfect opening chapter for their story and how do they find it?
The awful truth is that at the start of the story, you don’t know what perfect is, what it looks or tastes like. You might think you know. You might even be close. But you can’t be sure, and the key here is to not let it get in your way.
I have seen it happen so often: writers who get caught in the loop of writing and rewriting the first chapter. They want it to be the best opening to their story that it can be; they want to make it shine. They ask for reviews and feedback, and look up all the advice they can get their hands on about what makes a great first chapter.
Here, they find themselves in the trap. They are so busy searching for perfection that they aren't writing the rest of their story. Some never progress beyond this point, caught in this trap forever or until they grow so frustrated and bored with their story that they give up entirely. Their beautiful story winds up untold.
No-one wants that. So how do we avoid falling into this trap?
One of the best descriptions of the role and purpose of a first chapter that I have come across is this:
The first chapter is the question that the rest of the story answers. You won't know what the real question is until you can see the whole answer.
(Sadly, I can't remember the source for this. I have paraphrased from the original!)
I love this for so many reasons. Framing the first chapter as a question is great for describing its purpose: it has to raise interest in the reader's mind, pose questions, hook the reader's attention, and promise lots of answers to come.
This doesn't mean that your first chapter should be full of actual questions; this isn't advice that should be taken literally. There are lots of ways to raise questions in your readers' minds without writing them out word for word: create engaging characters with convincing motivations; present intriguing conflicts; make your readers wonder what will happen next; describe an interesting setting. Those are only a few ideas.
The second sentence of the advice quoted above is just as important as the first. This is the key piece of advice I find myself giving to people about their first chapter: you can't tell whether the start is right for your story or not until you have written all of it.
Our stories can surprise us. It could be that our characters make choices we didn't expect, or that the plot takes a turn we hadn't originally planned. It could be that a new, better idea came to light as you worked through the main thread of the story. It could be that your plan was right but the tone was not what you had originally envisioned. There are so many ways that our stories shift and change and come into focus as they spill out of us onto the page. And this is great! This is all part of the process of our stories becoming the best versions of themselves.
What this means is that you don't truly know what your story is until you have written it all the way to the end. Then, you can stand back and look at the whole thing, and see the shape it makes. At that point, you know the answer it gives to your reader; at that point, you know what the question really should be.
Experience tells me that it won't be what you entirely expect. It will be different to what you originally thought it was. The gap might be quite small or it might be huge; it's impossible to tell before you go through the process.
The short version of this advice is: write your whole story first. Then, you can start to see the best way to introduce your readers to it.
A first chapter is your readers’ way into the story. You’ve got to fold them into your world and introduce them to your characters; you’ve got to intrigue them and tempt them on down the path. Ease them into your story like you’re encouraging them to slide into a nice, warm bath, before you turn the heat up on them. Or drop them in cold, if that's your preference.
When you’re writing your first chapter, what you’re usually doing is writing your way into the story. You’re exploring the world and meeting your characters for the first time. You’re setting the scene and getting used to the scenery. You’re looking around and taking a breath before you focus in on the story you’re really there to tell.
This is a really fun and important process. It’s a good way for a writer to feel their way into the story, to settle in on the right tone and voice, and to pull up some good details and ideas along the way.
The key thing to remember here is that the writer’s way into the story isn’t the same as the reader’s. Often, when I’m going back over my opening chapter, I find that I’m taking out my own exploratory parts and putting in the best way to introduce someone who is not me to the world and story. Talking with other writers, they have similar experiences.
This is why it’s common for writers to completely rewrite their opening chapter, or to simply cut off the first chapter and start with what was chapter two. It may be that your readers don’t need to be led into the story at all: the most effective thing for your story might be to dump them into the middle of things. Or to simply start further down the track. You, as a writer, might have needed that wide panoramic shot, or to know your character’s morning routine, but your reader might want to start with the moment the bomb goes off.
So when you’re looking at your first chapter, it might seem brilliant and the perfect introduction. But ask yourself: perfect for whom? Think about your first chapter as taking a stranger by the hand and pulling them into the story, and then consider what they need to make that happen. The answer might surprise you.
What the above should be giving you a hint about is that when you’re starting your story, you don’t usually know what a good start looks like. If you think you do, you’re probably wrong. And that’s okay! It’s all part of the process.
Accepting that you can’t get your first chapter perfect until you’ve written your whole story is the first step in letting go of the need to get it absolutely right before you move on. Give yourself permission to be imperfect. Embrace the freedom of a first draft that is all about grabbing that story by the ears and pinning it to the page a sentence at a time. It might be a bit messy at first but that's okay: comfort yourself with the knowledge that you can always fix it later.
So don’t let yourself get stuck on your first chapter. Don’t let it be the trap that stops you from writing your story. The key to writing a great first chapter is to write the whole story first.
And don’t worry if you wind up throwing your original first chapter away. It doesn’t mean you did a bad job! It did exactly what it needed to at the time: that first chapter was right for you and it helped you get your story written.
Now remake it to get your story read.
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