Thursday, May 30, 2013

Please welcome our guest S. Dionne Moore

Components of a Solid First Chapter

S. Dionne Moore
            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.

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           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
by S. Dionne Moore

When a band of runaway slaves brings Union-loyal Elizabeth "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 good-bye 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?

S. Dionne Moore resides in South Central PA with her family. She is a weekly contributor to The Borrowed Book ( where she posts tips on the writing life, recipes, and teaches on various writing-related subjects. In addition to writing cozy mysteries, she pens historical romances that bring strong focus to locales within her region of Pennsylvania as a way of indulging her passion for history.
Twitter: @sdionnemoore


  1. Hi Dionne:

    Thanks for this post. I think it is a great way to craft a powerful first chapter. But does this approach presuppose the writer is a plotter? A pantser often has a problem with a synopsis even after the book is written. Also, a pantser often doesn’t know her characters until she is well into her book. It is only then that characters “come alive” and start thinking for themselves.

    Here's the big question: are you a plotter or a pantser? If a pantser, do you have to continually rewrite your first chapter over and over as you progress towards the end of your WIP?

    There is something else I always like to ask Civil War buffs: do you think Antietam was more important in winning the war than Gettysburg? (I find this to be like a Pantser/Plotter question.)


    P.S. When it comes to Pantsers and Plotters, Seekerville is a house divided.

  2. HI Dionne,
    Seekerville must be sleeping in this morning. :)

    Great post on first chapters, which--as you mentioned--are so important to hook the reader and keep him/her reading.

    You wrote: 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.

    On my first draft, I often include too much info in the opening and then delete it later. Seems I need to ensure I know the character, as you mentioned, on the first writing. Then, once I've got it in my mind, I can pull it out of the story and perhaps just weave bits and pieces in later.

    Showing the reader where the book is headed is important. Yes, the goal can change, but the initial need that moves the hero/heroine out of her ordinary world must be included, as well as the beginning of the romance. I also like a hint as to the faith arc.

    The coffee's hot. I'm grabbing a second cup. I brought bagels and cream cheese and jelly for a quick breakfast. Fresh fruit and, as always, grits!

  3. Love the quilt tie in with your story. Do you quilt?

    Great cover!

  4. Hi Dionne,

    I'm about to polish my story, so your post is timely for me. Thanks for sharing.

    Vince, you always have an interesting perspective. I'm so glad you're part of Seekerville.

    Debby, I definitely need caffeine. And grits sound yummy.

    I hope y'all have a great day.

  5. I'm a plotter but it still takes me a lot of time and many versions to make the first chapter work. There's so much to include. I give the first 3 chapters more attention than any other section of the book. I love to write endings!

  6. Wish we could just skip all this stuff and go straight into Chapter 2. Not a plotter. I never what is going to happen before it happens. Tough way to plan. Thanks for your suggestions and encouragement. I'll take some of that caffeine please.

  7. Dionne, Great post this morning about the all important first chapter. Like Debby I write a long beginning and then go back and revise. Meaning I usually cut the first 3 to 5 pages I've written.

    I love the line. "Would you tell them every terrible thing in your life?" Oh my goodness. Unfortunately I have known characters and real people with this tendency.

  8. I love first chapters, Dionne!!!

    They open a whole new world, ripe for the scope of the imagination!!!

    Oh, they're precious, wondrous things!

    (Of course I've usually back-story dumped and so must DISCARD my first chapters but eventually I get to the REAL FIRST CHAPTER and consider the rest a writing exercise.)


    Welcome back to Seekerville!!! I brought some delish home-made French Toast slathered with butter and sprinkled with confectioner's sugar (Is a generous sprinkle considered more of an onslaught???? Mayhap.)

    Anyway, dig in! Coffee's fresh and hot from the Yankee Belle Cafe and we're featuring iced coffee for all those in the midst of a heat wave! Hey, summer sighting in upstate NY!!!

  9. I love this post, Dionne!

    I'm more of a plotter than a pantster, but I still find myself "discovering" my characters as I write those first few chapters - in spite of the hours of character development I work on ahead of time.

    So those first chapters get written, and re-written, and re-written.

    But when that first chapter is finally polished and done, I hope it looks like the chapter you described!

  10. The idea that you're using your first chapter to discover your character is great.
    I've never really thought of that before.
    But it does explain why that first chapter needs to be revised and revised. You're Discovery work is absolutely necessary but it doesn't belong in the first chapter....

  11. SO crucial. You would not believe what I cut out of "Trail" before I had a decent first chapter. Well, maybe you would being Seekers. My crit partner gently guided me to this realization, and guided me some more. I think I've got it now, but there's a reason contests usually ask for your first 10 pages or first chapter. It's an art, but once you've got a reasonable handle on it, nothing feels better than knowing you've nailed it. I just used two clichés in one sentence. I do not write like that in the books.
    Kathy Bailey
    Pre-pubbed in New Hampshire

  12. Every book is a mystery or suspense book in a way, even if it isn't in that genre, because we have to drop hints along the way and hope the reader picks up on them. If we reveal too much, there is no point in the rest of the story! The first chapter is where we hook them (we hope).
    PP in NH

  13. Good Morning Dionne, Welcome to Seekerville.

    Great post and observation about that first chapter. I usually end up starting my novels with chapter three. Chapter one and two are the set up and start up for me. I end up taking snippets from one and two and dribbling that backstory info in.

    Have fun today.

  14. Dionne, I so enjoyed your post. As i'm working through this set of revisions, I keep trying to figure out how to make my first chapter better. Your words today give me some clarity. I've been schooled in the no back story dump methodology so I don't have tons of that in there, but it needs to be stronger. Perhaps I need to pull in more of the emotional aspect and clarify the goals.

    Thanks for your wisdom!

  15. Dionne, what a timely post. I've just been reworking a first chapter to make sure I've included all the essential elements. It can be hard to see what's missing and what's overdone until I take an objective look. I had to ramp up the GMC aspect and tone down the backstory element.

    Congratulations on your quilt book. Sounds like an interesting story.

  16. Thank you for your guidance on this post, Dionne! These tips are very helpful when thinking about reworking that all important first chapter. I used to grouse about it, but readers don't have the same attention span these days and we have to acknowledge that.


  17. Thanks for the warm welcome, all! Glad you all have found some help among the muck of my inane babblings. What I cut from the article was the paragraph in which I admit that sometimes I am 1/3 of the way into the book before I realize exactly what is missing from that first chapter.

    Vince, I started off as a pantster, prided myself on the fact that I was one, until I realized, as every newbie must come to the realization, that an editor does not look at your manuscript first, they look at a query and a synopsis. So, like it or not, I had to get to the place where I could sit down and summarize my story in order to generate enough interest for the editor to "take the bait" and request the manuscript. *sigh*

    That said, a synopsis, unless it is a long synopsis, does not have to be so full of detail that it immobilizes your ability to change something (which should satisfy a pantster). I think the crucial point is to prove to an editor via the synopsis that you understand the elements of building a solid plot (think GMC) and that you have a unique voice.

    If you all are still serving, I'll take a chocolate-covered, custard filled donut and a mocha. Heavy on the chocolate.

  18. Welcome to Seekerville, Dionne. Your post is stuffed with wisdom and practical advice! Thanks!

    No matter how many books I write, I find myself wanting to tell too much too soon. I hadn't realized until I read your post that's just part of the process of getting to know my characters. Thankfully I've learned to edit out backstory and sprinkle in a hint of his/her struggles. Finding that balance is tricky and vital.


  19. Oh, and I just gotta say, if you all ever get to visit Sharpsburg, MD, please do yourself a favor and look up Burkholder's Bakery. Best cheese bread. Best DONUTS! Need I say more? It's a very small bakery, not on main street, but one of those hidden treasures that small towns so often have.

  20. Hi Dionne,

    Such an important topic - the first chapter! I think most of us end up re-writing it. But that's a good thing!

    It's so hard to get the right balance of backstory, goals, motivation and present dilemma all in those first few pages.

    Thank goodness for editing and for critique partners! :)

    sbmason at sympatico dot ca

  21. Dionne is one of the first people I met at my first ACFW Conference. She ate dinner (was it dinner or lunch?) with me and my critique partner Suzanne Smykla Osborne. And she asked how to pronounce my name. I didn't realize until later it was because she was going to be announcing the Noble Theme(now Genesis) contest.
    What I do wonder, and maybe I've asked before and forgotten your answer, Dionne, is, did you know while we sat there that I'd WON. Were you THAT sneaky?

  22. A House Divided? Vince?
    I'm studying Civil War history right now, please let's hope it doesn't go THAT FAR!!!!!!!!!!

  23. Hi Mary:

    “A House Divided? Vince?
    I'm studying Civil War history right now, please let's hope it doesn't go THAT FAR!!!!!!!!!!”

    I hope so, too. In this analogy plotters are the south! We are totally out numbered. We’d need to General Lees.


  24. Hi Dionne:

    I love your comment:

    “Vince, I started off as a pantster, prided myself on the fact that I was one, until I realized, as every newbie must come to the realization, that an editor does not look at your manuscript first, they look at a query and a synopsis.”

    This goes along with one of my favorite quotes:

    “A pantser is a plotter who hasn’t yet been mugged by the realities of publisher requirements.”


  25. I'm Southern by birth--Viriginia. Robert E. Lees stomping grounds, but I live in PA now. Literally 20 minutes over the Mason-Dixon Line!

  26. I knew, Mary. I knew and I savored that knowledge! Bwa-ha-ha!

  27. Welcome back to Seekerville S Dionne.

    First! Where is South Central PA?

    Excellent post. Although I often find my first chapter is too strong and I need to bring my other chapters up to that level.

  28. No town named South Central, just a location. PA is a huge state!

  29. This post will be very helpful as I begin editing my first chapter...for the third time. "Would you tell them every horrible thing in your life?" Love this, but actually, I've read many books that begin that way. Thanks for your advice!

  30. How did you know?

    Edits are in for book 3, and I'm missing a few things. You've explained it so well, I even get it!

    Yes, another printer-offer from Seekerville!

    Thank you for an excellent post!

    Good to see so many familiar faces this morning. I tell you, Seekerville is the huge family I never had. :)

  31. okay, wait... Dionne got one over on Mary?!

    Bwwaaahahahahaha-ing with you! Hee ha!

    And y'all, as a wonderful pastor we enjoy says, "If you're a Christian when you die, you get to go be with Jesus and General Lee."

    Hand over heart... :)

  32. Great post! First chapters are so much fun and even when I "plot" I find I have to go back and write, rewrite and rewrite some more on the first, second and third chapters to weed out the unnecessary and add layers that set up the rest of the book.

  33. Hi Dionne,

    Thanks for a wonderful post! I went back and did the check points on the first chapter of my current MS. Was happy to see I'd managed to include most of what you recommended. I reworked a short section, making it much better, thanks to your post!

    Have a great day,

  34. Hi Jan:

    Talking about first chapters, I just took a peek at the opening of “The Prodigal Son Returns“ – and I have about six hooks in me already!

    It’s not so much the conflict that is driving my interest as it is delicious promises of things to come!

    OMG! An adorable child afraid of horses because they killed her father! A pretty widow who is highly suspicious. An almost fatal accident. An Englischer, who in a moment of stress, speaks Deitch when he would rather not have.

    This is like tasting a spoonful of a new soup and having a dozen delicious flavors tickle your tongue! You know you’re in for a great treat. This is an amazing first chapter.


    How do experienced authors compete with the first chapters written by début authors who have spent years perfecting, contest-tested, first chapters?

    Recently, I wrote about how Clari Dees, another debut author, wrote a first chapter in, “The Marshal Meets His Match,” which had such an interesting and unpredictable heroine, I just wanted to turn pages to find out what she was going to do next! (The old TV show, “I Love Lucy”, was really about what Lucy was going to do next.)

    I’m also reading a romance right now by one of my favorite authors, who has over 60 books published, in which the first 27% of the book is just the hero and heroine having a conversation in the same room! Lots of cute dialogue and lots of back story. A contest judge just might flip-out reading this!


  35. LOL. Yeah. I know. But I am direction challenged. My folks live near Erie. My child lives in Philly.

    So trying to figure out a landmark.

  36. Wonderful post on first chapters. Mine just saw its 6th, no, 7th revision. lol. I weeded out so much backstory last time that a contesting judge said there wasn't enough. First time I'd ever heard that. lol. I needed more woven in for the reader to get to know the character. I guess it's a tedious balance.

    Love your story blurb. I hadn't read a Civil War story in a long time until I picked up Jocelyn Green's Widow of Gettysburg. Now I'm craving more stories on the subject! Your premise is intriguing.

    Thanks for this helpful post!

  37. great posting today. wealth of information in a way easily understood. yay!

    now i won't feel so bad working through the first drafts of my first chapters. i'm just getting to know my characters better.

    my profs in film school always said the best stories begin AFTER chapter one - so write a few chapters to find your awesome beginning.

    i think that's pretty much what you just "said".

  38. Rewriting a first chapter is such a good experience! It means that you are recognizing weak writing and learning how to make things stronger. Never a bad thing! On my very first (unpublished) manuscript, I must have rewritten the first chapter fifty times--no exaggeration! But every rewrite got me closer. . .

    I finally realized I needed to finish the manuscript. What a revelation that was! I learned SO much. . .

    And then an opportunity came my way. Barbour was forming a line of cozy mysteries. . .

    I loved reading mysteries but had never written one, but I had an idea for a main character that I thought would be unique, so I got to it. I wrote the entire story in third person even though LaTisha's voice came to me in first person, but when I went to write the synopsis I couldn't do it. Every word of it kept coming to me in first person. Now, I had always heard that a synopsis should never be done in first person. . .and I was an unpublished author. . .so I got real nervous. Tracey Bateman (howdy, gal!) is the one who told me to go for it! That if I was hearing the synopsis in first person, then I should write it that way. Well I did. The editor loved it! She even asked me to rewrite the ENTIRE manuscript in first person. YIKES! But I did, and I must say, LaTisha is a much happier lady because of it. She likes to be front and center (though she really is humble at heart). So Get Off My Bunions became Murder on the Ol' Bunions, then LaTisha's story continued in Polly Dent Loses Grip, then Your Goose Is Cooked. Before I knew it I had three books!

    So I say all that to point out that those rewrites, coupled with finishing a manuscript, is such a critical time of growth for a writer. Don't give up! Don't get discouraged! Keep writing. Keep rewriting. Keep working!

    Vince, writing a solid first chapter isn't the whole picture. Anyone with a modicum of experience can write a solid first three chapters. This is why editors want a completed manuscript from new writers. They want to see the whole picture--the elements of story developed into a marketable and engaging product that they can get behind and sell. This is where the experienced author will have an advantage over those still learning.

    I'm not sure that you can compare a debut author to an experienced author though, because obviously the debut author has finally nailed the ability to write an engaging story, else they wouldn't have that contract!

  39. I am the queen of backstory dump because I want everyone to know everything I do. But like Debby, I go back and edit it out and sprinkle it throughout the story. Or at least I hope I do. I've learned from the few contests I've entered that one man's backstory dump is another's character goal and motivation. I just do the best I can. And now I'm working on a new idea and trying to figure out where in the world to start the story. I may just have to write and then edit, edit, edit and revise, revise, revise.

    Great post!


  40. Thanks for visiting with us, Dionne!

    I am going to stay out of the plotter/panther debate. At least for today. Vince knows where I stand. And it hasn't failed me yet!

  41. Hi Dionne,
    Good to see you here. Many thanks for the reminders on the elements that go into a great first chapter. Appreciate your sharing that when you judge a contest you look for at least a hint at the goal. It's taken many rewrites to get my GMC's in place for many scenes. Relying on a synopsis and outline have helped in developing my characters and avoiding some backstory dumps. I'm applying the wisdom that says less is more. Yet when I go back over the chapters, I see where the pace has slowed because of narrative or backstory. So I'm still learning Thanks again for being here today and sharing your experiences.
    Pat in SE PA

  42. *sips her mocha and makes a face. It's getting cold!*

    Deep POV=Character Backstory

    If you know their personality, how they were raised and all those little details, it will help tremendously to build the character in your mind, and deep POV will flow right out onto the page. Win-win!

    Can I get a refill?

  43. Dionne, we'll warm up your coffee for you! It's getting chilly out west, too.

    VINCE: Thank you for your kind words! I don't know how many others feel this way, but when someone speaks well of your debut novel, it makes the whole day go well.

  44. Stopping by to refill Dionne's coffee!

    Great discussion today. I'm giving my Muse time to come up with the next story. Today's post makes me anxious to write the first chapter...

    Although at this point, I know nothing about the story except for a little thread of suspense that keeps dangling in front of me.

    Question: Do you write your first chapter first? Or do you write your synopsis first?

    I usually write my first three chapters and then work on the synops.

  45. Jan, I just bought your debut today at Walmart!!!!


    So excited!

  46. Jan, congrats on your debut. Very exciting stuff!

    I normally write my first chapter after I have a rough background of my characters in my mind and the points in which their personalities will conflict with one another. Then, about 1/3 of the way in, I go back and tweak the first chapter if it needs it. I had a harder time of nailing the first chapter in my early books. Now I sort of know to start at that point where the character's world will be turned upside down.

    Does that even make sense? LOL! Too much mocha, I guess. And thanks for the refill! It's hot here today though. Over 80!

  47. I'm so glad Ruthy likes writing first chapters because I loathe them. Dionne, like you, I've rewritten some first chapters so many times that I think they've actually become different stories.

    I think the reason I hate first chapters is because, even though I push ahead, subconsciously I don't take the book seriously until the first chapter feels right. Need to work on that.

    Thanks for sharing such an inspiring post.

  48. Great advice! I'm currently massaging the rough draft of a manuscript into something much more interesting, believable, and just plain out...BETTER...I hope.

    This rough draft was my way of getting to know the characters, and I'm toying with ideas to fix the opening chapters. They just don't have the "oomph" I want.

    Oomph is very important, you know! :)

  49. Speaking of pantsers and plotters....

    I thrive on details, maps, and instructions. They energize me.

    But back when I was working full time as a purchasing manager, had 2 kids at home, working part time for ACFW, and trying to write, when I had a few minutes to write, I didn't want to "waste" it plotting and planning. I felt like I needed to write. This led to many days and hours of panic attacks, hair-pulling episodes, rabbit trails and deleted scenes because I didn't know where I was going.

    Now that I'm devoting my mornings (except when 1)the fertilizer spreader gets stuck like today 2)my cowboy needs me to go to the parts supply house immediately 3)or run buy gas for the ditch witch ASAP! 4) or the cows get out... When the phone rings and he asks "What are you doing?", it does NOT bode well for my morning...)

    Anyhow, BACK to my regular preferred morning schedule... I'm less stressed if I can take the time to map the story out on a spreadsheet even if it's partly written. If I can SEE it, I can spot the plot holes, and where things tie back to the beginning.

    I'm a hybrid working on both the "map" and the actual story at the same time. :)

  50. Oh, WOW!!!!
    I need to re-read this every time I sit down to write.

    What an awesome post! Thank you for sharing this. I think I had about ten lightbulb moments...

  51. Thanks for this post, Dionne (I'm super late stopping by today--been on the go!). This is a keeper for me and will be very helpful as I continue my "endless editing" (LOL) of my recently-completed manuscript (using the term "recently-completed" very loosely, since I still have much work to do on this story).
    Blessings from Georgia, Patti Jo

  52. Dionne --too much to go into ... but you guided me toward an answer that, once I realized it, was so incredibly obvious. Now I understand why, during the course of writing a story, I go back to that opener several times to re-write/edit. Usually by the time I finish the story my original first chapter bears little resemblance to my final first chapter.

    Thank you for the emlightenment!

    Nancy C

  53. Dionne:

    This is a great post. I just got back judges comments on two chapters I submitted and I'm re-doing them. I want my first chapter to make more an of impact.

  54. I'm rewriting a first chapter right now, so very timely post! Great things to keep in mind. Thanks, Dionne!

  55. Good night, all! It's been a pleasure. Thanks for visiting Seekerville! And to the Seekerville staff, a huge hug of appreciation!

  56. Great advice--when I started this journey I had NO idea how many times I'd rewrite each and every first chapter - and you're right, all that backstory does create the character in your mind...yep!!!

    Thanks, Gail Kittleson

  57. Thanks for your excellent article, Dionne!


    Harbourlight Books, 2012

  58. Thanks for your excellent article, Dionne!


    MaryAnn Diorio
    Harbourlight Books, 2012