You have a hazy idea for a story or maybe its sharp and clear, but you’ve been sitting in front of the computer for hours staring at a blank screen. How the heck do you jumpstart this jalopy? Here are a few steps to get your mojo going.
First Chapter Decisions
Beginning writers often think that the entire story needs to be plotted before any work can begin. That’s not necessarily so. Many writers don’t work with chapter by chapter outlines and only have a rough idea of the beginning, the middle, and the end, but there are several important points to keep in mind to help you get started on that first chapter.
What is the story about? Isn’t this the plot? Well, not entirely. The plot is the story, but the story hinges on the characters’ underlying motivation. There are often more than one, so it’s more important to ask, what is the theme? Or to put it simply, what issue or issues does this book tackle and how do the characters deal with it. Here are some common themes:
Coming of Age
Good versus Evil
Fate versus Free Will
Overcoming Personal Weaknesses
Books are a way to explore themes in depth and readers should get at least a hint in the first chapter. (Some might argue in the first few paragraphs.) You don’t need to spell it out for the them. Descriptions are more effective. It’s often helpful to start a story with a character’s limitations. How does a shy woman extricate herself from a bad blind date? How does a character in a wheelchair tackle a staircase without a ramp? Conflict within the first few pages helps, too. This doesn’t mean start the chapter with a knife fight (although you can.) Conflict doesn’t have to by physical, but can also be personal (disagreement between two people) or mental (making a tough decision.)
That being said, main characters should be introduced early. Many publishers of romance novels want the heroine and hero to meet in the first chapter. I don’t think a hard and fast rule like that is necessary, but you want readers to engage with the novel early on. Major characters move the story along. That’s hard to do if they aren’t introduced until halfway through the book. On the other hand, don’t dump a load of characters in the first chapter. It’s too confusing for a reader to keep everyone straight. A writer builds a story like a bricklayer build a wall, one piece at a time. The reader needs get to know each character individually. Tough to do when many fight for attention at the same time.
“It was a dark and stormy night.”
This opening line is now considered trite, but, remember, the first time written, it was an attention grabber. A line like this can be a lead-in to an inciting incident. An inciting incident isn’t a random event, but action that will have reverberations through the rest of the book. The opening paragraphs should hook the reader and leave them wanting more and an inciting incident is just the ticket. It should tease the reader’s interest and offer a bit of mystery, but you don’t need a police procedural. An inciting incident in a romance novel could be the heroine catching sight of the new guy in town. An inciting incident in a science fiction novel could be the heroine noticing strange lights in the sky. The one thing you don’t want to do is solve the mystery right away.
So chose your main characters, decide the theme, select an inciting incident and write a first line to draw in the readers. You may find starting that novel isn’t so hard after all.
L. A. Kelley writes science fiction and fantasy adventures with humor, romance, and a touch of sass. Her life story's inciting incident involves chocolate.