First Chapters: how to approach the overwhelming pressure of drawing a reader in

I have begun the mammoth task of rewriting my first novel – That which is left is lost (a.k.a. NaNo #1). I know I’ve made the right decision to rewrite rather than edit the original, because this was my very first attempt at a novel, written during NaNoWriMo 2011 when all I had was a vague idea and a few plot points to keep me going. When I wrote this I had no understanding of overall plot structure or character motivation, I still wasn’t clear on the difference between showing and telling and I didn’t really concentrate on the key events, letting my writing meander where ever it wanted (which was a positive first draft experience because it allowed me to experiment with my idea). 

Now, however, I feel a little more savvy about the elements required for a well written novel. I know about plot structure and the protagonist’s journey. I feel more comfortable about my character’s motivations and what their goals are. And, yes, I’ve developed a keen eye for the difference between telling and showing and when best to utilise each method.

ChapterOneHowever, that does not seem to be helping me much in the attempts to rewrite my first chapter. Where to begin? What to include? Who to introduce? What to reveal? All these questions keep circling my mind and although I’ve spent maybe ten hours in front of my laptop with it, I have only 1,500 words – most of which I’m not that happy with. I’ve rewritten and then deleted lots more material, screwed my nose up at sections and then decided that it’s a vital scene. All in all, I’m finding that now that I know more, I’m questioning everything I write because of it. 

In some respects I suppose I’m lucky that this was not my writing style to begin with. I can now appreciate how difficult it must be for those writers whose approach novels like this and then get thrown into the tempestuous challenge of NaNoWriMo. But, I’m trained in the art of first draft writing – I can knock out a few thousand words in a day and not be concerned that they’re rubbish. Now that I know my story, my characters and their goals though, it’s not so easy to manifest those things on the page whilst trying to keep it all in check. 

Basically, what’s happening is that I’m putting too much pressure on myself. It’s the first chapter – the one that begins the journey, that readers will need to be drawn in by; the first appearance of my protagonist and antagonist. There is a lot that needs to happen, figuratively, in those first pages. Initially I have to create a scene with a first line that immediately creates intrigue, encouraging the reader to invest time in reading on. Then, I have to present my protagonist, try and make him likeable and yet reveal some of the motivation that will set him on the journey for the rest of the manuscript. Finally, at the end of that first chapter comes the first decision that propels him on this journey, something that marks him out as different and will invite the reader to start the adventure with him.

So I know what I’m trying to do, I just haven’t yet found a way to do it.

COV-Rock-Your-RevisionsI’m planning to try a method that I got from Cathy Yardley’s Rock Your Revisions book (which I wrote a very favourable post for a while back). It’s key feature is to identify the goal, motivation and conflict in every scene/chapter. In some ways it’s about making each chapter a mini-story in itself, with its own problem, decision and climax to be resolved. In essence, at the end of each chapter my protagonist will have identified a solution to a minor aspect of conflict and have made a concious decision how to act based on his character. 

I’ve already begun to consider my first chapter like this and it is helping. Part of the reason I only have 1,500 words is because I’ve recently deleted almost 600 words that introduced a character that really doesn’t need to be in the opening chapter. For my first chapter my protagonist’s goal is to try and identify someone to support his patient, Madeline. He finds a letter in her room and, by the end of the chapter, chooses to open it. His motivation for doing so is rooted in his belief that no one should die alone, despite being reprimanded previously for interfering in patients’ lives and breaching professional conduct to find them a support system. Therein lies the conflict: he opens the letter despite all of this, because of a belief that will remain with him until the end of the novel…

I still don’t think it’s going to be simple to write my first chapter successfully. But, at least now I know what it is I need to include. It’s slow progress, but it is progress and I’m moving forward with it.


What are your experiences with first chapters? Do you find the requirements overwhelming, or does it come naturally? I’d love to hear about it in comments…


8 responses to “First Chapters: how to approach the overwhelming pressure of drawing a reader in

  1. Pingback: The Chapter Two Challenge | Cat Lumb: The Struggle to be a Writer

  2. A tough prospect for you but probably the right approach. I’m in the same boat. I finished my first manuscript in early Nov. and made 4 passes to polish it before beta. I’m getting good feedback on the story but I don’t think interest will hit critical mass the way it’s written. The problem with editing is that I feel like I’m trying to do plastic surgery on my own child. If I want a different kid I can always have another.
    I think I will polish the synopsis then create an outline and scene list. I’ll work from that. I’ve been living with the characters in my head and on paper for a few years so the dialogue should just happen.

  3. Great minds and all that, Cat! You are very brave, I think, to do a rewrite rather than an edit. I could not begin to attempt that with my first draft, although as I didn’t outline first time round, the plotting is proving difficult to sort out, as I said in my reply to you on my blog. Anyway, if you would like someone to read that first chapter, I would be up for that, if you think it might be helpful in seeing the wood for the trees!

    • Julie – I think I might take you up on that very kind offer! Of course, I’ll have to finish writing that first chapter, but having someone look over it might very well be just what I need! Thank you!
      🙂 x

      • Whenever you’re ready 🙂 I don’t know if I can offer anything new compared to your writing groups etc but I’d be happy to have a look.

  4. Re-write? You always, always, always choose the most arduous path. Hopefully this will reap dividends for you. I still think you’re mental though! 🙂

    • It’s most definitely needed in this case: my writing has improved a lot since I first attempted this novel and rather than try and bring up the amateur attempt up to a decent standard I figure that rewriting will, actually, be quicker! (If I can conquer the first chapter!).

      Choosing the most arduous path might mean it’s more challenging, but hopefully it also means more learning opportunities! 😛

      And yes, I am mental – you knew that already! 😉
      Take Care, Cat x

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