First Sentence, First Page, First Chapter

As I’m working on my serial novel, Razor Mountain, I’ve reached the point where I have a rough draft of the first two chapters. In some ways, each of these is a first chapter — each one introduces a separate point of view character, in a different setting and vastly different time periods.

I let these chapters “rest” for a week or two, and then came back to revise them. There are many different ways to revise, but today I wanted to talk a little bit about beginnings, and all of the “firsts” of the book — the first sentence, first page, and first chapter.

If there are any parts of a novel that are more important than the rest, they are the beginning and the end. A good ending will often buy the reader’s forgiveness for weaknesses in the middle of the book. A good beginning, on the other hand, is vital to get the reader interested in the first place, and to tee up all of the wonderful stuff you have planned for the rest of the book.

Consulting Some Books on Writing

Anyone who has followed this blog for a while is probably well aware that I am a collector of writing advice, tips and tricks, so I looked through my collection of writing books and pulled out some pertinent ones. If you can build up a little library of books and writing resources that you like, it can be very helpful to focus yourself by picking out a few related books and skimming or reading the relevant sections before you embark on a particular task.

When I buy a book on writing, I do try to read it right away and internalize what I can. However, I have plenty of these books that I last read five or ten years ago. I’ll be the first to admit that I only have so much storage space in my internal memory to hold on to that knowledge. But that’s the great thing about books — all that knowledge is still there, in external (paper) memory.

I first pulled out The Portable MFA in Creative Writing by the New York Writers Workshop. In the chapter on fiction, it has this to say about story-opening strategies:

The purpose of the beginning of a story is to introduce character and conflict. Another purpose is to catch and hold the reader’s interest. One way to do so is to raise a question in the mind of the reader. Another way is to quickly immerse the reader in the action of the story, to eliminate boring exposition…conflict, when effectively dramatized, also catches the attention of the reader.

This hits a lot of the points I was working toward when I initially planned the beginning of the novel. However, now that I have a draft, I need to make sure that I actually execute my plan effectively. I’ve set up clear questions at the beginning: why does Christopher wake up groggy on a plane where the passengers and pilot have vanished? I need to make sure that I quickly jump into the action of him making this discovery and then attempting to deal with the situation. I also need to show some of his character through his thoughts and actions in this stressful situation.

Next, I moved on to The First Five Pages, by editor-turned-agent Noah Lukeman. This is a text all about beginnings, and while it focuses on crafting an opening that will appeal to agents and editors in the traditional publishing world, the bulk of its advice applies to any fiction opening, regardless of how you plan to publish.

Lukeman suggests several things to trim and improve:

  • Adjectives and adverbs — This is pretty common writing advice. Replace them with better nouns and verbs, find more unusual or evocative modifiers, or swap-in an analogy, simile or metaphor instead.
  • Sound — This encompasses myriad vague things: sentence construction and the use of punctuation like comma, semicolon, em-dash, and parentheses; “echoes” like the repetition of character names, pronouns, or unusual words; alliteration and the repetition of specific sounds in close proximity; and resonance, the sound of the language separate from its meaning.
  • Dialogue — An overuse or complete lack of dialogue, dialogue as artificial infodump, melodrama, or just generally difficult-to-follow exchanges.
  • Showing vs. telling
  • Viewpoint, narration, and consistent character voice
  • Characterization — Not skipping over properly introducing characters in the hurry to move the plot along.
  • Pacing and progression — Do the individual parts of the story flow together in sequence?
  • The hook — A really interesting or exciting first sentence that still fits with what comes after.

There are many other sections in the book, but these were the things that stood out to me as I skimmed through it this time.

The Hook

The hook is typically considered the first sentence, or less often the first couple sentences. It is called the hook because that’s what it should do to the reader: hook them and pull them into the story.

The first sentence and first paragraph should be concise and exciting — although you can decide what exactly exciting means for you — action, dialogue, or an interesting premise. It will help if that beginning leads the reader into those key elements: holding interest and elucidating character and conflict.

My intent with Razor Mountain is to start the story with Christopher on the plane. He wakes up (which is admittedly a well-worn trope for a book opening), groggy from being drugged. It is dark. At first, he thinks the poorly lit passenger cabin is a shadowy cave. It is only as he looks around and regains his senses that he realizes where he actually is. I’m also hoping to achieve some symmetry with this opening, where the beginning and end of the first act involves a character in a cave. Likewise the beginning and end of the entire book.

The First Page

The first page or first few paragraphs are an extension of the hook. A hook can be exciting and hold the reader’s interest with all sorts of tricks, but that will only take the reader so far if it doesn’t lead naturally into the rest of the book. The first page is an expansion of the hook.

The hook drops the reader into the story and shows one, maybe two important things to get the reader invested. The first page gives you more space to work, but also demands more. The reader needs to be anchored to a place, or people, or more likely both. Enough of the setting and characters has to be described, in order for the reader to start to envision what’s happening. All of it still needs to keep the reader engaged and pull them along.

The First Chapter

When the reader turns that first page, you’ve achieved an important milestone. You’ve hooked the reader. For the rest of the chapter, you’ll be doing largely the same things, on a broader scale.

The first chapter is a sort of promise. Whether you’re intending it or not, the first chapter promises the reader an idea of what the rest of the story is going to be like. Since it’s happening either way, you had better lean into it, and make that promise count. Maybe you’ll hint at exactly what they’re getting by highlighting the style of the book or introducing important characters and settings. Maybe you’ll foreshadow future events. Or maybe you’ll be subversive, setting the reader’s expectations, only to shock them with a plot twist later on.

Razor Mountain Firsts

Later this week, I’ll talk more about working on the first sentence, page and chapter for Razor Mountain, as well as all of the other revisions I’m working on for Chapters One and Two.

4 thoughts on “First Sentence, First Page, First Chapter

  1. Great article! Two of my go-to writing books to dip into when I need a nudge are “Telling Lies for Fun and Profit” by Lawrence Block, and “If You Want to Write” by Brenda Ueland. You probably already have them, but if not, I think they’re fantastic.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Ueland’s book is less concrete in its advice, but each chapter is like an encouraging sit with a writer friend. One quote I keep coming back to since discovering it years ago is:

        “I learned that you should feel when writing, not like Lord Byron on a mountain top, but like a child stringing beads in kindergarten – happy, absorbed and quietly putting one bead on after another.”

        This thought has been very freeing for me.

        Liked by 1 person

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