Monday, February 21, 2011

First Chapters

I’ve learned a lot from reading a bunch of first chapters in a row. (I started this discussion here. ) I maintain I can’t teach anyone to write, but I sure can point out the problems I’m seeing over and over and over again. So here’s a brief list.

1. Inexperienced writers almost inevitably START THEIR STORIES IN THE WRONG PLACE.

Now, please, please remember – I am not talking about first drafts, here. As far as I’m concerned, all a first draft has to do is get to “The End”. It doesn’t have to be polished. It doesn’t have to make sense to anyone but you. At the Southern California Writers Conference this weekend screenwriter and novelist Derek Haas referred to his first pass of a story as “the vomit draft”. Exactly. Just get it all out – you’ll make sense of it later. (for more on this: Your First Draft Is Always Going To Suck)

BUT - when you’ve gotten to the end, you will probably want to start your story 20, 30, 50 pages later than you do. And this is partly why:

For some reason newer writers think they have to tell the whole back story in the first ten pages. Back story is not story. So -


With almost no exceptions, you should start your book with an actual scene, in which your main character (or villain, if that’s who you start with) is caught up in action. You should put that scene down on the page as if the reader is watching a movie – or more specifically, CAUGHT UP in a movie. The reader should not just be watching the action, but feeling the sweat, smelling the salt air, feeling the roiling of their stomach as they step into whatever unknown.

We don’t need to know who this person is, yet. Let them keep secrets. Make the reader wonder – curiosity is a big hook. What we need to do is get inside the character’s skin.

Here are two tips:


I cannot possibly stress this enough. We read novels to have an EXPERIENCE. Make yourself a list of your favorite books and identify what EXPERIENCE those books gives you. Sex, terror, absolute power, the crazy wonderfulness of falling in love? What is the particular rollercoaster that that book (or movie) is? Identify that in your favorite stories and BE SPECIFIC. Then do the same for your own story.

Now that you know what the experience is that you want to create, start to look at great examples of books and films that successfully create that experience FOR YOU. In other words - Make A List.


A great exercise is to make sure that every three pages you’ve covered specific details of what you want the reader to see, hear, feel, taste, smell, and sense. All six categories, every three pages.


This is one of those notes that always annoys me until I have to read 15 pages of “telling”. Then I realize it’s the essence of storytelling. If your character has a conflict with her brother, then let’s see the two of them fighting – don’t give me a family history and Freudian analysis.


You don’t need to detail the family tree or when they moved to whatever house they’re living in or their great love for their first stuffed animal.

What we need to know their DESIRE and WHAT IS BLOCKING THEM. We need to feel HOPE AND FEAR for them. We need to get a sense of the GENRE, a strong sense of MOOD and TONE, and a hint of THEME.

And -


You can do this to some extent by setting mood, tone, genre, hope and fear, and an immediate external problem, but also I mean you should get to your INCITING INCIDENT and CALL TO ADVENTURE as soon as possible. Especially if you are a new writer, you cannot afford to hold this back. It can make or break your submission, so find a way to get it into the first few pages or at the very least, strongly hint at it.

And for more discussion and examples of all of these terms, see ELEMENTS OF ACT ONE.

In the next few posts I'm going to get even more detailed about these story elements.

Hope everyone has a great holiday. I'm - well, obviously - working.

- Alex


Screenwriting Tricks for Authors and Writing Love, Screenwriting Tricks for Authors, II, are now available in all e formats and as pdf files. Either book, any format, just $2.99.

- Smashwords (includes pdf and online viewing)

- Kindle

- Barnes & Noble/Nook

- Amazon UK

- Amaxon DE (Eur. 2.40)

- Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)

- Amazon/Kindle

- Barnes & Noble/Nook

- Amazon UK

- Amazon DE


Jeanne Ryan (Serenissima) said...

Great post as usual! I'll be thinking of your points as I battle through my next revision.

GaRY said...

Great timing on this post. I'm just finishing rough drafts of a novel and a related short story. Both will need serious work and this post will be a big help. By the way, I'm writing the short story because I just have to tell a back story but don't have a place in the book.

Unknown said...

*Serious* clue by four to the forehead, here - now I realize why the dratted rewrite isn't letting me in...I'm not showing the conflict right away. Show, Don't Tell is so right.

Joylene Nowell Butler said...

Awesome post, Alex. I'm putting up a link on my webpage.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Good luck with the revision, Serenissima! After the first draft, it's all icing.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Gary, bless you for taking your back story out and putting it in a SS. Brilliant idea!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Great, Chris - yes, get to that conflict. So easy to do and yet so easy to forget on that first pass.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Thanks, Joylene!!

Shopgirl said...

Found you from Joylene, thank you both for sharing this wonderful post.

I felt the same about a mini story I was writing, half way through, I thought, I should have started the whole thing right here!

Robert Burton Robinson said...

I'm working on my seventh book, so I should know all of this by now. But a refresher helps keep me on track.

Great stuff, as always.

Just bought your ebook, by the way. ;)

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Shopgirl, thanks for checking out the blog, and thanks to Joylene!

You GOT to your real starting point, and that's all that matters. There's nothing wrong with spewing until you catch up to the story. As long as those spew pages get cut in subsequent drafts.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Robert, I hear you. I'm just writing this stuff down to remind MYSELF. ;)

Thanks for checking out the book!

G.R. Yeates said...

Hi Alex,

Great post. I'm just re-reading my first manuscript at the moment, last revised back in 2008. Yep, looooooong time ago. It's like reading a new novel now that it's been that amount of time and I've been pleased to see that the opening section has not suffered as I feared it might. I've used this post as something of a mental checklist as I've gone through the prologue and first chapter.

My prologue establishes the protagonist succinctly and keeps plenty secret to entice the reader and then the first chapter proper sets the scene and fills in the details, but only those that are needed.

Hopefully, this is a good sign and the full readthrough won't be too painful. I live in hope ;-)


laughingwolf said...

it's like what good screenwriters' how-to books/instructors say: chase your hero/ine up a tree; throw rocks at him/her; allow him/her to come down safely... or not

you're always generous in sharing your insights, alex... thank you!

Anonymous said...

Yes keep the action up up up! Battles, stirrings of live, mistakes made, hearts broken, oops the hero messed up, the villein refuses to be defeated, why, how, what, when. Am I right?

I did make there big mistake of starting with the wrong character in my first draft. It's amazing how much better the book works, and goes together after fixing that.

does any one know when a book finally stops needing to be revised, and edited? I'm talking about after you have written the last chapter. How to know when to stop?

I've been working on my book sense 2012 (took a year break I was burnt out.) I'm finally on chapter 23. Writing it isn't the hard part its the ending and revising. Whew!

If anyone is feeling nice and wishes to help stop mistakes in my draft, th story is posted in Look for Souls Tears, 1000 times thank you to anyone that helps.