You have your characters, your plot and your world. You have at least a rough plan of your story’s contents – perhaps an event, good or bad (usually bad), has an effect on one or several characters. Or perhaps it even affects your world as a whole (some provocation of war; apocalyptic catastrophe etc.), but still you’ll tell stories of individuals and how they cope with this change you have constructed. You will likely have some sort of ending in mind, a resolution of sorts.
Excellent. Congratulations. So, you’ve sat down after days, weeks, maybe even months of planning, but how the hell do you start?
Deciding the Purpose, Setting the Tone
Before you put pen to paper or finger to keyboard, or however you crazy kids do it these days, you need to decide what the purpose of your first chapter is. Remember, this is what agents, publishers and, if you’re lucky, your readers will see first. I’m not going to say try harder for the first few chapters because, if you’re a committed and passionate writer, every chapter should have all of your heart and soul squeezed into it. What I will say is that it’s extra important at this stage to communicate your writing style, the genre of the book, the audience you’re aiming for and the general tone that you want to set.
Lure Your Readers, Not Someone Else’s
A fast paced action/thriller can have a slow, perhaps character building, chapters once the story is underway – it might even serve as a nice break of pace – but do this in the first chapter with no hint of a fist-fight or gunshot and you will trick people who may otherwise love your book into throwing it aside after a paragraph or two.
Another example would be a horror book. Not every page of a horror will be scary, but the first page will have to be at least eerie in some way, effectively translating to the reader: “I am a horror book. Please only buy me if you are inclined to read a book of such a genre. Thank you.”
Communicating your genre and your target audience come hand in hand. If your book is gory, put some gore (or reference it) in the first chapter. The same goes with swearing, sex and any other adult themes; you don’t want some pious saint reading your angelic first chapter, think it worth their hard-earned cash, and then continue to read someone £#*&ing someone’s #*$@ and then stabbing another through the %&*£ later in the book. Similarly, if you have a huge amount of violence in your opener, then those who continue to read are likely to be disappointed when the rest of book is all clouds and rainbows.
Another element to consider, with fantasy and horror in particular, is the ‘scale of realism’ or ‘scale of fantasy’. If your horror begins with realistic foundations (a murderer on the loose for example), then it is no good later in the book deciding this killer is actually an alien/ghost from the future.
In fantasy, you must show what level of fantasy your story is going to be. Is it full on Lord of the Rings? In which case best start it with reference to a vast and unusual world with plenty of dark creatures and mysterious magical concepts. Or does it have only a few elements of fantasy with many other themes based on realism, like in A Song of Ice and Fire, where, yes there are, eventually, dragons, a bit of ‘magic’ and occasional appearances from strange creatures, but it’s clear that they are all very restricted. The fantasy elements are bound by realism. You must show where on this spectrum your story stands as early as possible so as to not mislead the reader.
The Golden Promise
When you start writing your story for the first time, think of the people who are going to be reading these words. You are promising something to them in the first few pages. You are promising that if they continue to read your book they will not be disappointed, because you have shown them what to expect in your story’s opening.
Using a Prologue
Now, what about prologues? Where do they fit in?
Prologues, primarily in fantasy, can be a quick note of past events, world details, nomenclatures, languages, character details any other supplementary details to the plot, characters or world. I believe editors and publishers these days dislike prologues used in this way; it shows that the writer lacks the skill to insert these details naturally into the main body of the book.
A good way to use prologues is to show the direction/theme/genre of your book, just as previously discussed about the first chapter. If you feel your first chapter doesn’t give the reader that accurate promise that’s so important, your prologue can do it instead.
Again using George. R. R. Martin’s masterpiece as an example, his first chapter in A Game of Thrones, like most subsequent chapters of the book, doesn’t have any magic, mythical creatures or, for at least a few chapters, much action. Someone picking up and reading may think that is the tone of the series: that it is about political conflict in a medieval era similar to that of England but with big-ass wolves knocking about. But we all know that A Game of Throne’s is about much more than that, and its prologue promises the reader that this is definitely fantasy, and it will have plenty of action, horror and suspense. And with this glimpse of the white walkers, we are promised that more magic and elements of fantasy are likely to occur – it presents the direction of the series.
This is also my favourite way to use a prologue (if your book is part of series): where the first chapter promises the contents of the book and the prologue promises the contents of the series – it gives an exciting glimpse of what is to come some way into your story, perhaps even after a couple more instalments.
I hope this guide has helped you consolidate your plans for how to begin the telling of your story. If you decide to include a prologue it must be notably different in content from your first chapter. One must be seductive and the other informative, providing the reader with different promises. But they must both hold a consistent style – your style, so it is clear that they are part of the same story. If you leave out the prologue and settle to open with the prime story, it just means there is a little more pressure to showcase both your literary skills as well as the direction of your novel.
In Part Two, we will discuss the actual structure of your first chapter, what elements to include, and tackling that all important opening line.
By D. C. Ward
Thanks for reading, I hope this writing guide helped you. If you require help in other areas we have a few more writing guides for you to choose from, such as our writing dialogue guides: Writing Dialogue Part 1 | Part 2 and our guide on Establishing Characters. Please like, comment, subscribe, follow, get eight hours, eat five a day. Cheers!