Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Starting Your Story Right

First chapters are always fun for me.

I love setting up the story and creating some juicy conflict.

One thing I try to keep in mind is that I start the story right. There's a lot of advice to start the story with action, which is great, but I also think there's another important aspect to the first chapter and it has to do with character arc.

The first chapter should start with your main character in their ordinary world. This is the world they've been in before the story started. The same problems, the same people, the same moral structure.

Somewhere in chapter one, usually toward the end, something happens or some choice is made which propels the main character into a new world. A new job, a new challenge, or maybe new choices.

This change that occurs should be something that challenges your hero or heroine's character.

Thus, the character arc begins and chapter one ends with your main character in a struggle that will continue throughout the story and at the end of the book, your main character should be somehow different or changed from who he or she was at the beginning of the story.

What happens to your main character in chapter one that will forever change him or her? Who is your favorite hero or heroine and how is he or she different at the end of the story?

29 comments:

Terri Tiffany said...

It took me four books to learn I needed an inciting incident. In this book, my MC loses her husband, is broke and makes the decision to move near relatives she doesn't know to survive:)

Katie Ganshert said...

It takes awhile, but if I wrestle long enough, I usually find a good place to start. I like to start with something happening right away - maybe not big (actually, usually not big) but something that throws the main character off his or her game.

Jessica Nelson said...

Oh yeah, Terri, I always forget about the inciting incident! lOl
Sounds like your character has a strong change.

Katie, love that term "throwing off game". That's exactly what happens!

Linda Kage said...

Harry Potter! Starts out as this normal human boy and suddenly he finds out he can talk to SNAKES! Gasp.

Wendy Paine Miller said...

Reading a great book about this, Hooked. Also, Novel Matters had a great post on this (I believe last week)...Sharon's post.

My character learns something about her sister that will rock her world.

~ Wendy

Stephanie Faris said...

I tend to throw my character into the action as soon as possible. I've even noticed every time I have an idea, the first line hits my head before I've gone any further!

Diane said...

You worded it so simply and easily to understand. Great info, thanks! :O)

Susan J. Reinhardt said...

Hi Jess -

My genre is futuristic suspense (not Sci-Fi), so the rules are a bit different. I jump into the action within the first couple of pages.

Blessings,
Susan :)

Jessica Nelson said...

Linda, never read the book but that's a great example!!

Wendy, I need to go check out Novel Matters then. I'd love to learn more.

Stephanie, I love when that happens!

Jessica Nelson said...

You're welcome, and thank you, Diane. :-)

Susan, I'll bet you have plenty of action in yours!

Anita said...

I've learned so much about first chapters since I first started writing. Back in the day, my first chaps were LOADED with back story and very very boring! It took rewriting my first MS about six times before something finally clicked and I learned how to "start" in the right place. ;-)

Great post, Jessie! And from the stories you've written that I've read, you're great at starting in the right place. :-)

Tamika: said...

The first chapter is the nail biter for me. I want to gather all the angst and pinch the reader with a painful story premise. My character are usually reeling after a few short scenes, and looking for shelter to lick their wounds.

I'm so mean:)

Jeanette Levellie said...

Excellent advice, Jessie.

What annoys me is when I read a first chapter from an acclaimed author, and I think, "That's it? I'm supposed to be intrigued by Aunt Sophie's loss of her double boiler? How did this book get published?"

I hope I'm not being overly-critical, but I'm baffled by the lack of conflict and story line in some of the novels I read...

Jessica Nelson said...

LOL Jeanette. Wish I had an answer for ya...

Tamika, girl, you're NOT mean, you just know what makes a great story. :-) Your characters will love you by the end of the book. *grin*

Patti said...

It took me a long time to figure out where to start my story. Many many rewrites.

Jill Kemerer said...

Yes! I'm a big believer in Debra Dixon's GMC (goal, motivation, conflict) too. Has to be in the first chapter!

Janna Qualman said...

This is really helpful, Jessica, and I think you. I've been working on some revisions, and was feeling like my first chapter isn't strong enough. I'll use your tips here!

Tana Adams said...

This is great and I agree with you! I think my major change happens at chapter three or four, but I have a significant change (in my WIP) that happens right off the bat in chapter one. I'm always afraid I'm missing some big part of the story structure. Thanks for keeping me on my toes.

Are you on sub yet? I'm dying to catch up with you!

Lynn said...

Stephen King said it well. He writes the advise to put your character in a situation and/or with a person opposite what they do or who they normally would hang out with. And then see how they react. I believe there is a movie coming called Aliens vs Cowboys. Now that is truly an opposite thinking concept!! Kind of crazy but brilliant!

Lauren said...

I agree with your assessment of how a story should play out. This is exactly how my first novel went, so hopefully editors and agents will find some value in that!

jdcoughlin said...

I love Their Eyes Were Watching God. Janie has just come through literal hell and high water. She is slipping into a life she knew before, but it's not a good fit. She's has to unload her life first. I absolutely the unfolding.

Amy DeTrempe said...

Great advice and so clear and easy to understand. You summarized what I have seen some books take a chapter take to explain. But for most authors I think it takes more than a few first chaps to get it down. I know that is what happened with me.

Patti Lacy said...

You've got lots of fun suggestions here, Jessica! I can't wait to read your first chapter!!!

Have missed this place!
Blessings,
Patti

Glynis said...

I wrote my first chapter and loved it. Then I read it a few months down the line, and wondered why on earth I thought it would capture me a reader!

I stripped it apart, then the next chapter and so on. Now I am hoping I have got the right balance.

Good post.

Kathryn Magendie said...

My books start slow I think - slow as in nothing "happens" but yet there is all this Stuff swirling, there's this standing on the precipice feeling - maybe? or ... heck I don' tknow *laughing*

One time I put the "action" first because I thought I "should try it" and my editor asked me to move it and put the leading up to it stuff first - so I guess what I do and how I do it works best for my kind of books ....

MaryC said...

Hi Jessica,
I read another great post on this topic yesterday at Kristin Lamb's blog in case you're interested.

This is something I struggle with. I think I've finally got it right for the current book.

http://warriorwriters.wordpress.com/2011/02/28/in-the-beginning-part-one-normal-world/

Caryn Caldwell said...

Great advice, and a good reminder for even the most experienced writers. I read a lot of agent blogs, and many of them have said that some people are so quick to start with some action that the reader doesn't get a feel for the character or the context before they're thrown into the upheaval. Plus, then the reader doesn't really get a sense for what has changed or how the character has grown over the course of the book.

Georgiana said...

I love writing opening chapters too! Usually by the end of the book, though, I realize there is so much in the first chapter that doesn't match the rest of the book I have to scrap the whole thing! I'm learning not to take my first run so seriously because it's just a jumping off point.

Karen Lange said...

Good stuff! So glad you shared this! ;)