Writing and Rewriting That First Chapter

The first chapter might be the most important chapter in a novel.

Whether you’re trying to entice an agent or publisher for traditional publishing, or trying to keep readers who’ve picked up your self-published masterpiece, the first chapter needs to be a great hook.

There are plenty of articles out there which detail some elements of a good opening chapter (like this one from Writers’ Digest which describes several agent-repelling mistakes, and this list of tips by Chuck Wendig).

So, rather than try to provide comprehensive advice here, I’m focusing on three major issues I’ve encountered while writing my own first chapter(s): (1) knowing where to start the narration; (2) being able to set aside perfectionism so you can finish the rest of the manuscript; and (3) having the humility to make major changes.

Knowing Where to Start

The narration should start in the midst of action—not necessarily physical action or the main plot, but a scenario which provides immediate forward momentum.

Main characters should have desires and fears before they’re introduced to the readers.

Before writing the first chapters of my current project, I laid out psychological profiles and histories for my characters, but the pre-existing problems they had simply weren’t interesting enough as a starting point for the novel. My (attempted) solution was two-fold: I gave them more elaborate pasts, and shifted the narration so the first chapter begins later in their lives.

Perfection is the Enemy

Sort of.

Lots of writers (particularly new writers) tend to suffer from perfectionism, editing the first chapter(s) of their novels so many times they lose steam and never finish an entire manuscript. This happened to me with the great majority of my past projects.

I’ve found it’s better to keep moving forward.

For my first “completed” MS, after writing a draft of any chapter, I avoided making major edits until I finished a draft of the full MS. Though I’ve since spent a lot of time revising this novel, I believe structural edits made after a full draft is finished are much more powerful than any edits that could be made beforehand.

somucheditingBring the Scissors—and a Nuke

Being willing to make major changes makes a huge difference (probably).

At around the “tenth draft” of my MS, to bring more action into the earlier parts of my book, I compressed ten chapters of plot into four. While this process brought more excitement to the forefront, it also left the first chapters rather clunky (odd transitions, too many scene changes, not enough sympathy for the characters).

After further revisions (cleaning up the parenthesized problems above, among other things), I found my first chapters were still unsatisfactory. My hypothesis as to the reason: I preserved too many elements of older drafts which were broken from the compression process.

Cutting and pasting wasn’t working out. Fixing one problem seemed to lead into another.

So, about two weeks ago, I set aside the scissors and brought in the nuke. I obliterated the first three chapters to rewrite them from scratch (well, almost from scratch). I’ve finished new versions of the first two chapters and they’re looking much better (of course, I’m kind of biased).

Let’s see how it all works out.

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25 thoughts on “Writing and Rewriting That First Chapter

  1. I can relate, sort of. I write fanfiction on my own and edit the work of others. I find when I hit a wall in my own work it’s because I’ve written something that just isn’t going to work. I once had to rewrite 20 chapters because of this. Sometimes a suggestion or question I give those I edit for brings about major changes as well. Like life writing is a work in progress.

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  2. “I compressed ten chapters of plot into four. While this process brought more excitement to the forefront, it also left the first chapters rather clunky (odd transitions, too many scene changes, not enough sympathy for the characters).”

    This is the EXACT problem I’m dealing with now. I compressed about seven chapters in Act I into four, and now the pacing is totally whack. Betas were like “well, it was a little slow before, but it wasn’t bad. Now I’ve just got whiplash.”

    So, like you, I’m completely reimagining my entire beginning. I’m still on the fence between starting in the physical action – a car crash – as it provides a great hook and immediacy. But I feel like I should add a page or two before it in order to establish character before we throw them into peril. It’s going to take some mulling. Ugh. Beginnings are the worst, man.

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    • Yeah, you should only edit the first chapter so many times before finishing the rest of the MS. After a draft of the MS is done, though, that’s when the majority editing seems to come about (and there’s so much of it).

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  3. Openings are difficult. It’s a challenge to find the right amount of action and just enough backstory to let the reader know who the character is. Too much backstory, and the reader loses interest. None at all, and the reader is lost. And like you say, we spend so much time trying to perfect it, we soon lose our objectivity.

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  4. great post. i remember the first time i realized that my book wasn’t perfect. scrapping parts that don’t work is painful, but necessary if you want to move forward. sounds like your books coming along! good luck!

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  5. I can very much relate to this. In my case adding two chapters at the beginning of my book to start at an earlier point. This happened after much digestion of in put from a local writer’s club (a God send!) The whole book benefited greatly from the change (and manifold editing and re writes in other sections) Thanks for the in put!

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  6. Excellent post! I can certainly relate to the “perfectionism” part – it often takes as much effort to avoid going back and editing as the editing itself does (at least in my brain)! It’s nice to know that other people feel similarly

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  7. Great post. The scissors and nuke are hard to use, and it always wounds the pride. But that’s the kind of commitment you have to have to make the damn thing right. Thanks for sharing.

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  8. Some excellent advice here. Thanks for following The Write Edge, by the way. I hope you find it edifies and enhances your day. Let me know if I can help in any way. All the best to you in your writing career!

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  9. How true. Everything seems like it hinges on that first chapter. On the last book I wrote, I must have rewritten the first paragraph about twenty times. And then I ripped out half the book and set aside to use as a sequel. It’s all surgery. You jave to cut in order to make any progress.

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