Friday, October 5, 2012

First Chapters—What to Include

by Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraig
file000306979641My editor emailed me last week to see if she could get the first chapter for the next book in the series to include as a teaser for the book that’s coming out February 5. Her managing editor said he needed it by November 1.

“Sure,” I answered.  This, although I hadn’t started the book yet, and was working on a different project.  :)  I always say yes to whatever editors want, then figure out the details later.
With a teaser, you end up with a chapter floating around with no anchor—no cover copy to give the set-up for the book.  The teaser is functioning solely as ad copy for the series.  My editor asks for it to be fairly fixed—I can have some differences between the teaser chapter and my final version of chapter one …but that it not be too radically different.
The character names have got to be the same in both the teaser and the actual finished book.  This means I need to have more of a handle on these characters than I frequently do when I’m writing a first draft (since I usually make it up as I go along and  change character names when I get to know the characters better.)

Setting needs to be fairly concrete, too.  Can’t have the teaser set in a lighthouse and have the finished book set in a remote mountain cabin.

And the general plot set-up has got to be consistent.   If the teaser opens with a dead body and the suspects exclaiming over the body’s discovery, I don’t need to change the story to have the body discovered in chapter three.  Some readers buy several books in a series at once and read them back to back.  Those readers would definitely notice any large discrepancies.

My first chapters usually include (whether they're teasers or not):

Action.   Something needs to happen in the first chapter.  If there’s a lot of talk and no action, readers may not stick with the book.  Sometimes I have a dead body in chapter one.  Sometimes I have an argument between the future victim and one of the suspects.  The first chapter is a great place to include the inciting incident for your story—the point where it’s no longer an ordinary day for your character.

Minimal character introduction.  This is something I’ve learned the hard way over the last few years of writing.  Readers won’t be happy if they’re overwhelmed by characters and character names in the first 15 pages of the book.

Limited backstory.  I just bring in enough backstory to keep the reader from getting confused.  The first chapter isn’t the time or place to just flat-out tell the reader all the character motivation.  That gets boring when the reader hasn’t even gotten to know the character.

Minimal setting and character description.  I tend to skimp on setting and description, anyway….and it’s really, really skimpy in chapter one.  That’s just personal preference.  I give enough broad brushstrokes to give the reader an idea what or who they’re looking at.  I do provide more detail in following chapters, but still try to space it out.

The story's mood, tone, genre.  It’s a murder mystery, so I want to make sure it feels like one from the beginning.  I set the mood and tone for the story in the first chapter, too.

Dialogue.  Because I’m a fan of dialogue, I usually have a lot of it in my books—and I almost always open with dialogue (despite what a lot of the writing “rules” say.)

What do you include in your first chapter?  What do you keep out of it?  How do you like to open your stories?
Image—Cohdra : Morguefile

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