This is a second very special episode! I will be doing a live reading of my first chapter of the book I recently released & talking about how to write a mind-blowing first chapter.
- Great interview on the Creative Penn with Toby Neal which goes together with her video on comparisonitis. We are often are taken off track by ideas and where we want to go.
My tip: Analyze your life and write down your vision statement and your perfect day, and work towards that. This is a recipe against comparing yourself to others in your field, and being taken off-track by them. If you have a clear vision statement that you worked on not during an afternoon but very carefully and thoroughly to determine that this is what you REALLY want, then this statement will always remind you of your ultimate goal as opposed to the goals and lives of others.
- Writing About Death, Dying, And Grief With Dr Karen Wyatt on The Creative Penn Podcast. A very extraordinary podcast episode. I myself am not a fan of death culture but I write a lot about death in my books, and I want to do it authentically, and this helped me understand how to do it.
Dr Wyatt recommends to spend a little time journaling first and doing your own inner work to prepare before writing about death. We should be careful not to objectify death – this is what we do when we read crime novels, action thrillers and play video games – project death outside of ourselves. If we want to write about it authentically, we need to explore our own emotions and feelings on those topics, which can be scary for many because death is something we mostly never think about that consciously. Think about your own losses and grief. It’s a tough process but if you want a scene to touch your readers it has to touch yourself first. Reminded me of Ted Dekker’s recipe for a bestseller: you have to be the one to bleed on the page.
- The importance of mental & physical health. The death of a very famous musician shocked us all, and I watched a documentary on Netflix about his life. And it dawned on me that even if you might have anything your ambition dictates you to have: money and fame, you might lose what is most important to you: your health and your relationships. It saddened me and also, again and again, underlined the importance of mental and physical health while we are trying to be creative and productive. Cherish these relationships in your life and take very good care of yourself, those are things you won’t be able to get back once they are gone.
- My blog has a new design and I incorporated my fiction work or behind the scenes of my fiction work into it.
- I might start writing a new non-fiction book, I will reveal the topic soon because I want your questions and struggles on that.
- And – I am currently working on a new course! Collaboration with a very excellent blogger friend of mine, I will tell you more on the next episodes. Actually, this podcast takes something away from the course, a small excerpt.
Before we dive into the topic, I want to mention my YouTube channel where you’ll also find the reading. Also, there is an exciting giveaway coming in several days where you can win a signed hardback copy of my book! Don’t forget to subscribe to the newsletter to get a free 8-week course! And if you fancy, you can support me on patreon for several dollars a month.
How to write a mind-blowing first chapter
Writing a good first chapter is one of the hardest things to do. This is what will sell your book to the reader (once he or she has overcome the cover and the summary hurdle, and clicked on the look inside button). Here’s the most important tip: don’t try to get it right from the first moment on. Just write, and then return again and again to rewrite. Because if you try to nail the first chapter right away, you will never complete your novel. I made this mistake with my first book until I realized I just HAD to move on from this.
Why is the task so hard? Because the first chapter needs to introduce your whole story while being thrilling, it needs to accomplish so many things. Let’s get through them and see how it can be done.
1. You need to hook the reader
Hook them with the opening line.
The first sentence hook can be either plot-related, but mostly it needs to be tonal. How so? It gives the tome for your story and hooks them with a claim or statement that they just need to explore.
“IT OFTEN HAPPENS TO ME, this sudden feeling of having been here before, in an indefinite past time, at this place. Before me lay a city bathed in the early sun rays, smoke, and panic.” – D. Wink, Prometheus Rising
We are obviously talking about deja-vu here, a feeling people can relate to, but it is described in a way that makes you want to know more. It also introduces the theme and the first person narrator. We know also where we are, and the panic is what finally hooks the reader and gives us a question.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” – Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” ― Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
Here, we are introduced to the theme of both books with a bold claim. It gives us a question and clearly sets the tone for the book.
- So what does the opening line need to accomplish?
set the tone
- Give a question the reader NEEDS to be answered
If it does more – great! It can name the character or better even: give us a setup of the theme. But those two are really essential.
Hook them with the plot
Your plot needs to be asking the burning question: What happens next? This is your Opening punch! How do we manage it?
- Introduce the conflict & antagonistic force
Maybe it’s not the main conflict of the story, but it needs to hint towards it as well as it needs to hint towards the antagonist if you don’t introduce him here. The scenes conflict needs to be universal and relatable, at the same time throwing us mysteries and questions we desperately want the answers to.
- In media res – in the middle of things
With your opening scene, you need to start in the middle of things. This does not necessarily mean explosions and destruction and the world is about to end. But if you know what scene you want to open with, open in the middle, and leave out the beginning. Forget the exposition, and instead, incorporate it INTO the scene. This way you can accomplish the hook with your plot. Watch out that you find the balance between too much explanation and confusion: explain only those things your readers need to know at that moment so that he can follow the plot. No more, no less
Example: Prometheus Rising
- Conflict: terrorist bomb attack, lives are at stake. It gives a glimpse into my genre as well. Terrorist attack: very universal and relatable nowadays. We all imagine what it would be like to find ourselves in the middle of this terrible thing – I did my research on this: how medics feel when they are there, how they help the people, how the chaos swallows them.
- Hint to the antagonist: terrorist, but also that there is a bigger force behind it.
- When I first started, my scene began in Adama’s apartment in the early morning, and then the explosion happened. But with the principle of in media res, I began the scene while he is already in the car, passing by the terrible place.
Hook them with the character
Okay, all those things are happening to those people. But why should the audience care? Because you make them care! You need to introduce your character to an extent that will make them want more. How?
The characteristic moment is a moment where your character – despite his weaknesses – demonstrates a quality that makes readers like him and cheer for him. You need to evoke sympathy.
Demonstrate the quality at a convenient moment, a quality we all admire and maybe even one we wish we had.
Introduce the strengths and weaknesses in ACTIONS
We love flawed characters, ambivalent characters we all can relate two
– through ACTIONS and actions alone, introduce some of your character’s core weaknesses and strengths. This is why your plot and scene need to give him the opportunity to show his true face, at least to some extent. Hint at the lie the character believes. A lie deep down inside of him that we accompany him through the story, and is the core of his flaws
Don’t overload the opening with characters!
Make sure you focus on your main character first, otherwise it will be too overwhelming. You can introduce the second most important character if convenient
Example: Prometheus Rising
- Characteristic moment: he decides against going to the hospital and elopes on his own to save the people on Trafalgar Square.
- Flaw: Cannot follow rules and is rebellious, is hard and calculating when it comes to life and death scenarios.
- Strength: Wants to help people, compassionate, strong and overcomes his fears.
- We are instantly with Adama. We know how he looks like and how his life looks like through the short flashbacks/memories he mentions. We stay only with him because the book is so centred around his character (first person narrator).
- His lie: That the world is black and white and the terrorists are the bad people (the whole story comes to a full circle with this scene at the end of the book)
You will need to set up several things in this chapter to build on them later.
Saw your seeds NOW. In the first chapter and the first act in general. Questions. Little things that will pay off later.
Setup of the world – Worldbuilding
You need to start building the world in your very first chapter. Here, you start with the “normal world”, whatever it looks like it your story.
You need to suggest where we are and WHEN we are and start revealing little details of your story that show the reader the peculiarities of your world.
Example: Prometheus Rising
We are in London. The lenses, the auto-pilot, the screens on the bus – all suggest we are in the future without having to state it (we are writing the year 2056).
Setup of the theme
Your theme is the overall question of the book about humanity and the way we live in this world. Maybe even an answer to the question: What makes a happy life? Or another pushing question in the human quest.
You will need to at least suggest the thematic patterns of your story in the beginning. What is the core of your story? What is it about?
Those are things the readers may not consciously realize now but will be aware of later when the story develops.
You can use an elegant ending, bringing your story to a thematical full circle by mirroring beginning and ending in some ways.
But beware: Don’t bring in the theme in full force in the first chapter! Otherwise, you will be preachy. You theme develops through actions as the story unfolds. Here, you only hint at the patterns, nothing more.
Setup of the main conflict
What is the main conflict of your story?
In Prometheus Rising, it’s the conflict between Manasseh & Adama about the question: How do we handle pain and loss? And also, it’s about what makes a good society and a life worth living.
Although this conflict is not evident in the first chapter, it’s still present in a setup. We see a terrible loss and pain happening, and Adam trying to handle it as a foretaste to what is still to come. We see how society and government try to handle it, and how the worldview is manipulated and influenced by propaganda and media rather than reality (in the later chapters).
It’s important you give at least a hint of the main conflict or set it up in this scenes so that it can develop naturally from this scene and the scenes to follow.
3. Know your audience
One last mention of genre. Your cover and hopefully your book description set up the genre, and make a promise to the reader. The first chapter has to keep this promise. You have to deliver the promised genre to your reader, and depending on genres, the promise and thus expectations are completely different: from romance to sci-fi to mystery and crime.
Thus, you have to know what people from your genre are expecting. How? By reading popular books in the genre and knowing your audience. There is nothing wrong with doing things a little different, for sure. Don’t be “another book”. Be different. But still, don’t miss the cues your readers are expecting. Know your genre.
Next week, we have an interview with Meg Konovska. She is an artist, designer & blogger, and created an illustrated storybook. We will be talking about inspiration, the collaboration between the creative arts and routines. Don’t forget to subscribe, comment and rate!
Also, don’t forget to take part in the giveaway for a signed hardcover or paperback copy of my book! The link is in the show notes and on my blog and social media.
See you next week!