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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Components of a Solid First Chapter ~ by S. Dionne Moore

Born and raised in Manassas, Virginia, S. Dionne Moore moved to Greencastle, PA in 1993, then to Mercersburg in 2008. Moore enjoys life in the historically rich Cumberland Valley where traffic jams are a thing of the past and there are only two stoplights in the whole town. Moore is author of the LaTisha Barnhart Mystery series as well as new historical romance release "A Heartbeat Away."

Leave a comment for S. Dionne Moore and be entered in a drawing for her book. U.S. residents only, please. The winner will be announced on Novel Rocket's Facebook page tomorrow. Be sure to like us there!

Components of a Solid First Chapter

When I judge contests the one element I want to see in an entry is that hint of the character’s goal. I want to have evidence that we have a destination. Whether that destination changes and shifts along the way is not of concern, just let me know where the character is headed, and give a hint of the conflict they’ll have to endure along the way, and I’ll pack my bags and climb on board for the ride. But what I often find in my judging is that the writer introduces a character and describes some surrounding, then the first chapter is complete. 
When writing that all-important first chapter, there are elements you want to include. You want to show the pull of emotions drawing the character into a journey of self-discovery. A well prepared first chapter puts the reader right into the head of the protagonist so that they can see what the character sees, know what the character is thinking (intuitively), and want what is best for them.
Expectation is foremost when a reader begins a book and the journey to motive begins in chapter one. A character should not know exactly what is wrong with them by the end of the first chapter, otherwise their journey toward epiphany is greatly shortened and the reader has nothing to look forward to. No expectations. Readers want to move with the character through a fictitious journey full of hope, hurdles and, if romance, love, that will ultimately end satisfactorily. 
Front-loaded backstory is a sign that the writer is still fleshing out their characters and is often nothing more than a synopsis disguised as a first chapter or, worse, a badly written prologue. Think of how you would talk to someone you are first introduced to. Would you tell them every terrible thing in your life? No, of course not. Some of us don’t even realize the bad things from our childhood that have affected us so deeply until we are far into adulthood.

It is the same in a fictional relationship. The main character will not pour out their entire life’s story in the first chapter. Backstory is essential only to allow you to better understand how your protagonist should act and react in the situations you create. If adding backstory is necessary to understand a character action or reaction, it should be very short and to the point.
Writing a solid first chapter is not for the faint of heart. It’s tough work. You need to have a strong idea of where the story and the characters are heading and convey that to your readership in such a manner that is both engaging and sympathetic. Not easy, I know. But work on it by planning ahead. Know your characters before you start.

Understand who they are and what they want--give them a personality!--then take it from there. Most of all, don’t be shy to ask someone to read your chapter for you, or better yet, read it out loud to yourself! You’ll be amazed at what you’ll catch, and hearing your story will tell you whether the words and those clever turns-of-phrase you used really worked or just muddled things up.
Whatever you do, don’t stop writing. Don’t freeze up. Stop and think. Get to know your character. Pound out a synopsis. It doesn’t have to be detailed or long, but it should be a general idea of where the story is going. Couple that synopsis with knowing your character as if they were a friend and you will be well on your way to writing an exceptional first chapter that will knock the socks off any judge!

A Heartbeat Away

When a band of runaway slaves brings Union-loyal Beth Bumgartner a wounded Confederate soldier named Joe, it is the catalyst that pushes her to defy her pacifist parents and become a nurse during the Battle of Antietam.

Her mother's mysterious goodbye gift is filled with quilt blocks that bring comfort to Beth during the hard days and lonely nights, but as she sews each block, she realizes there is a hidden message of faith within the pattern that encourages and sustains her. Reunited with Joe, Beth learns his secret and puts the quilt's message to its greatest test—but can betrayal be forgiven?


  1. Thanks for having me, Ane. I wonder if any readers will share what they feel is the toughest part of writing a first chapter. . .Anyone????

  2. The funny part is for me, first chapters aren't hard. Once i have my story idea and know my character, it's the opportunity to introduce the reader to her/him. I like to create a bit of mystery about the character, so I learned early to leave out back story.

    It will be fun to see what our readers say. :)

  3. Thanks for the advice. I am a new writer, working on my first book, and this is something I have been struggling with in the first chapter, wondering just how much to include. This article helped me realize a better place to start the backstory in my book. Thanks!

  4. That first chapter is always so much work! I rarely keep my first chapter. Most of the time is gets heavily revised, or completely rewritten when I am working on a second draft. Thanks for the great tips!

  5. I think the first chapter of my first MS went through over 90 revisions before I was satisfied (yeah, that zero is supposed to be there). Thankfully, since then, I know what to include. Still, I've never heard it explained so eloquently. The hardest part for me is making the character likable if they're feeling hopeless and downtrodden. I usually handle that, though, by having them do something outward focused--serve somewhere, help someone, defend the underdog--just to show there's strength in there even if they've lost their way. Because even if you include the goal and the stakes, if people don't care about your main character, they'll put down the book and walk away. And who wants that?

  6. Great article..thanks for sharing your insights.
    I deleted the first 100 pages from my rough draft before I finally got a chapter one I felt good about. Reworking the beginning helped me focus on my character's goals, eliminate unnecessary back story, and create a hook. Chopping away your work is painful, but oh so worth it.

  7. Thank you for your helpful advice. I especially liked the part about introducing yourself to someone new. It helps paint a better picture of what the first chapter should and shouldn't be.I am a new writer, and I've reworked my first chapter a dozen times. This gives me a new way to think about it. Blessings.


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