Wednesday, March 20, 2019

A Checklist for First Chapters

By Debby Giusti

First chapters make or break a book so start with an opening that grabs the reader.

Luckily, first lines do not have to be written first. Discern where the story’s going and how you want it to unfold. Launch the characters on their journey then go back and rework the opening.

Still stuck on the first line? Shorten, chop, cut. Pare down to a word or phrase. Turn the opening into a question or place it in quotes. Have the lead character whisper a warning, tell a secret, make a promise. Add action or introspection or a universal truth the protagonist will grapple with and eventually come to accept.

Too wordy? Kill prose that keeps the focus on the writing instead of the story. The opening should be straightforward, not a series of convoluted twists that confuse the reader or make her dizzy. Cut weak modifiers. Choose verbs that pack a punch.

Still not satisfied? Work on something else. Give your internal muse time to sift through your mental database. Often when you return to the opening, the perfect line will bubble up from the depths of your subconscious.

Start the story as the action begins…or even a tad bit later. Christopher Vogler, in THE HERO’S JOURNEY, writes about beginning in the protagonist’s ordinary world where he receives the call to adventure. Once committed, he crosses the first threshold and can’t turn back. The shorter the book, the faster the hero accepts the call and is propelled into the story.

Set the tone and pace and don’t detour off track. Keep descriptions true to the genre. A dark Victorian cottage bathed in shadow is quite different from a warm and inviting bungalow where children romp on the front porch.

Anchor the story in time and place as soon as possible. Again, don’t go overboard. A line or phrase will usually suffice.

Write the initial scene in the lead character’s point of view. Provide clues as to what drives the hero, why he must move forward or what’s at stake if he doesn’t succeed. Hint at his fatal flaw or greatest fear, his Achilles heel or the one facet of his personality he needs to keep hidden. Again less is more. Wet the reader’s appetite; don’t shove the information down her throat. Remember flawed characters are sympathetic characters. Everyone cheers for the underdog.

Introduce the various story arcs within the beginning pages. (What’s a story arc? Inspirational romantic suspense has three arcs or story threads: the romance, suspense and faith.) Where does the protagonist stand initially as far as his relationship with others? What obstacles or threats place him in danger? Does he believe in a higher power or has he turned his back on God?

In a romance, get the hero and heroine together as close to the beginning as possible. Capture their initial reactions and never make falling in love easy. The more unlikely the relationship, the more satisfying the happily ever after.

(Tip: If a female secondary character enters the story before the heroine, make the other woman unsympathetic so the reader knows she’s not the love interest. The converse holds true if a male is introduced before the hero.)

Tease the reader with a hint as to where the story’s going so she can accept or reject the invitation to tag along. Her decision depends on the clues provided in the first chapter. End with a hook that forces her to turn the next page and then another and another. Snag the reader at the beginning, and she’ll stay with you until the end.

What would you add to my checklist? Leave a comment to be included in a drawing for a copy of my Publishers Weekly Bestseller, AMISH SAFE HOUSE!


Happy writing!

Wishing you abundant blessings,
Debby Giusti
http://www.debbygiusti.com/

AMISH SAFE HOUSE
By Debby Giusti
Hiding in Plain Sight
The second thrilling Amish Witness Protection novel

After Julia Bradford’s son witnesses a gang shooting, hiding in witness protection on Abraham King’s Amish farm is the only hope the Englischer and her children have. Even as danger closes in, Julia is drawn to the community’s peaceful ways—and the ex-cop turned Amish protector. But when their location is discovered, can Abraham protect her family…and possibly have a future by her side?
Order HERE!

This blog post first appeared in Seekerville on April 15, 2009. 

45 comments:

  1. Hi Debby:

    I work to follow all your checklist items in my stories as they are definitely essential. Along with these checklist items, it is my primary objective to create an 'initial state' with the most interesting possibilities for producing streams of conflict.

    For me it's not so much the hook found in the opening sentence as it is the opening situation which, in effect, makes the whole first chapter the hook. The military might call such an initial situation 'a target rich environment'. Having such a diverse initial state works well for pantsers because there are so many different ways the plot can proceed. (It's harder to paint yourself in a corner when there are so many options the plot can take.)

    I also like to 'invest' the reader in the story as soon as possible by providing information allowing the reader to understand the situation the hero and heroine find themselves in. Some writers find this so important that they provide what some would consider too much backstory. It's all in how it is done.

    Let the reader know a lot quickly. Time, date, location, dangers, etc.

    One other thing: I like to show is the GMC for both the internal and external motivations for at least the hero and heroine. Actually, I think you do this very well in your stories. This again is a way to get the reader invested in the story at the earliest possible stage. (The sooner they are invested, the sooner they will care what happens next.)

    I also go to school on your theme threads to learn how you balanced them all so well. The romance, the inspirational, the suspense (will the hero and heroine survive until the next page?), and the mystery (who done it?), Of course, sometimes you add a military theme and an Amish theme which tend to have their own logic. As for me, I tend to stick to just the romance. It's easier to juggle one ball than four to six. :)

    Thanks for your post and please consider more posts with checklists. They are very helpful.

    Vince

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Great points, Vince! From your opening situation reference, it sounds as if you have combined the inciting incident and the call to adventure so your story gets started with a BANG!!! That's great! I so agree with including that GMC at the onset...or at least a hint of what will later be revealed. My editor sometimes wants me to add more info in the beginning chapters than I would normally do, but I always bow to her expertise. She's very, very good!

      You also mentioned what I call anchoring the reader at the get go. You noted the importance of including time, date, location, danger. Each scene needs to be anchored, as well, if some of those things change. We always want the reader to know where the action is taking place so they're never lost or confused.

      Great input, Vince, as always. And thanks for your kind words about the threads I weave into my stories.

      I've made a note to write more checklist blogs. Thanks again.

      Enjoy this first day of Spring! It's cold in GA but the flowering trees and bushes are blooming!

      Delete
    2. Hi Debby:

      Here's a situation with the first sentence or paragraph hook that is sometimes a problem for continued readership.

      Given that the first sentence has a great hook, it is clever, and it is memorable, it can still actually increase the letdown when the reader discovers that they are in a first chapter of a book that should have opened in the third chapter. You see this in Indy books more often because a good editor would cut the first two chapters. We know from experience that this happens.

      By investing the reader in the story I mean that the reader has established a good understanding of what the book is about and wants to read more because she cares about what happens next and not to just discover enough about the story to determine if the story is in fact worth reading once it becomes clear what the story is about.

      I give up on stories where it takes too long just to determine if the story is worth reading because key information is being held back. It's a pet peeve of mine. I'd like authors to know this. :)

      Vince

      Delete
    3. Thanks for adding even more to your first comment, Vince! See Mary's comment below about first chapters that sometimes can be cut. Great minds think alike!

      Delete
    4. Vince, first.... this is spot on. I love how Debby weaves her suspense thread with romance and faith and as I eye up doing a suspense series, I read Debby, Shirlee McCoy and Lynette Eason.... I read others too, but I can "see" their methods more clearly and that means a strong, clean read.

      And I agree that I see first chapters that should get cut all the time... Honestly working in category has honed us to drop into the action, don't get all literary pokey and dokey.... because that's not our job.

      I use my initial first chapters as my "Getting to Know You" serenade from The King and I... and once I know the characters I re-write that opening and more... But I'm so over the angst of cutting. I used to panic.... EEEK.

      No more panic, I cut a lot! :)

      Delete
    5. Hi Debby:

      It's funny that you would mention Mary's comment about "Petticoat Ranch" and moving first lines and even later chapters to the front. "Petticoat Ranch" is my favorite Mary book and it does everything I like and want to see in a romance.

      The chapter has a tombstone at the top.

      Mosqueros, Texas, 1867

      So the reader knows right away where and when the story takes place.

      Next follows this opening paragraph:

      Sophie heard God in every explosion of thunder as she listened to the awesome power of the approaching storm But there was more. There was something coming-- something more than rain.

      (That's a lot better than "It was a dark and stormy night." :) )

      This opening leads right into the unfolding inciting incident or an initial state where the heroine and her four daughters are hiding out in the desert from bad men who want to do her harm.

      Not only is a terrible thunder storm headed her way but also what seems like a lot of horsemen riding very fast. Since this is in the desert there is the danger of killer flash floods if you happen to be in a gully.

      BTW: those thundering hoof beats are a posse which is after the hero to lynch him. The hero rides rapidly past the heroine's hiding place and falls right into a deep gully just moments before the flood waters can be seen approaching the injured hero who lies helpless on the gully bed. Remember it is also a dark night! The heroine has to jump into the gully and pull out the hero out just as the flood waters reach where they are! They are both seconds from being killed!

      I truly believe that when you have such a powerful inciting incident open the story, it would be almost impossible to write less than a great 'hooking' first sentence.

      Mary writes exactly as I like best and as such that's why I think of her as a genius! No really, I do.

      As a marketing person, I would love to see "Petticoat Ranch" promoted along with her new releases as a "Connealy Classic". The book is just as good as the day it was released and as a historical it will never be outdated. Also, getting fans to read the best of your backlist is a great way to sell all future books. So when making a guest appearance and your new release is featured it would give a 'one-two marketing punch' to promote the classic too.

      And that goes for "Yule Die" and "Red Kettle Christmas" just as well.

      Vince

      Delete
  2. As a reader it's not just the first chapter but the first page.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Mary Preston, is that what makes or breaks a book for you? Whether you'll buy it or check it out of the Library? That first page...actually the first paragraph or so is key in hooking the reader.

      Thanks for your support! Always love hearing from you!

      Delete
    2. Mary, I agree, and that's kind of how it is with most professionals in the industry too. I've heard agents and editors tell me/classes/groups that if they're not grabbed in those opening paragraphs, that first page, it's done....

      And as harsh as that sounds, that's how it should be.

      Thanks for your honesty.

      Delete
  3. Yes! That first line/paragraph is so essential to me as a reader. For me, it sets the tone of the story. Is it going to drag on & on or suck me into the story from the get-go? Is the heroine whiny or strong (even if dealing with old wounds)? Is it too descriptive or not descriptive enough? Etc, etc, etc.

    These are also things I look at as an editor. I want to help make that opening as strong as it can be. Great points, Debby! And congrats on Publishers Weekly!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Beth! Looking forward to seeing you at CFRR! It won't be long!

      Delete
  4. Hi Debby. I used to think that I had to finish every book that I began but my advancing age 😀 and the size of my TBR list has changed that. So, a first chapter that grabs me is great and a tantalizing first page is wonderful!
    Blessings,
    Connie

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Like you, Connie, I used to finish every book I started, even if I didn't enjoy the story. Now I am more selective because I have less time. A book that hooks me from the first line is a treasure. Too often I read like an editor/writer, trying to understand how the author constructed her story. That takes some of the joy out of reading. I much prefer books that transport me to another world where I forget to analyse and just read for pleasure!

      Delete
  5. Debby, you bring up so many great points! One was the part about making the opening line have to do with the struggle the character will face through the story. And, as I read about the character arcs, you confirmed something I did when I plotted out my women's fiction novel. I had all these different ideas going around in my head, about the sisters' relationship, the goal of the story and their relationships with others in their lives. When I wrote each down and figure out the arcs for each of these aspects, I knew how the story needed to go.

    I'll be coming back to this post again. Thanks for sharing all this gold!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. So glad you got something from the blog post, Jeanne! Writing a woman's fiction is a huge challenge. Congrats on seeing all those arcs and weaving them together! Good for you!

      Delete
  6. Great points, Debby. I will use this as I revise.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Something I've found about first lines is, often, I write them later, deeper into the book. Second, third, fourth page.
    Then I look at it and think, "That's a good one." And shift around and find a way to make it the first line.

    The first line of Petticoat Ranch was, "There was something coming. Something more than rain."

    Which got some attention in a contest...like a comment that said, "Cool line."

    So I moved it to the front.

    And in my current WIP I wrote a first line of the SECOND chapter and like it so well I'm considering changing the second chapter to the first.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for sharing, Mary! Love the idea of pulling a good line up to the opening. So smart!

      Delete
  8. I can't think of anything that could be added to this fabulous checklist, Debby! Definitely a keeper...and one to share!

    Happy First Day of Spring!
    Looking forward to reading Amish Safe House!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you, Kathryn! Happy First Day of Spring to you! I bet you're having a lovely, warm day on the West Coast! At least, I hope you are!

      Delete
    2. Oh, I forgot it was today! That makes my day even better to know the days are getting longer now. :)

      Delete
  9. Debby, this is such a great post! I love checklists. And I love how we can go back later and change our opening lines and chapter. Sometimes we need to know more about where the story is heading. We can go back in and add foreshadowing and can highlight personality traits that will be important in the story.

    As for adding anything to your list? I think you hit on everything important here! I mostly think about how I can make my character sympathetic so the reader will be rooting for him or her. You mentioned that in one of your sections.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Missy, so true about making the character/hero/heroine sympathetic. Michael Hauge says to establish one of the following about the lead in the opening: the hero/heroine is likable, a master of some skill, in jeopardy or, as you mentioned, evokes sympathy from the reader.

    ReplyDelete
  11. I love this! And it's such great timing for me. I'm almost finished with my current WIP but the first line just doesn't have the punch I want. I'm going back to rework it. Especially love this idea: "Have the lead character whisper a warning, tell a secret, make a promise." Opens up all sorts of new possibilities. Thank you, Debby! And congratulations on Amish Safe House being a Publishers Weekly bestseller!

    ReplyDelete
  12. Thank you, Laura. So glad the blog posted at the right time for you! Good luck finding that perfect first line!

    ReplyDelete
  13. Just finished your book and loved it. You definitely have those first lines down pat.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh, Lucy, thank you so much! I'm grateful for your support and kind words.

      Hugs!

      Delete
  14. Debby, this is so totally opportune. I'm working on the opening chapters of a proposal and I knew something was flat.... and after reading this I went back to it and saw it straight off.... and knew exactly what I needed to do to make this story jump.

    I haven't read this newest Giusti yet, but I'm chomping at the bit! Maybe on my way to CFRR... I'll make Beth drive and I'll sit back, sip Diet Mt. Dew and read!

    Oh, happy day!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Looking forward to seeing you, Ruthy, at CFRR!

      Glad today's post provided inspiration!

      Hugs!

      Delete
  15. I love it when a chapter starts with a Bible verse, poetry line, or a quote from another story.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Thanks Debbie for this checklist post. I need to keep this one bookmarked! I love when stories begin with predicaments that immediately throws a wrench in the main character's life no matter the genre. Lee-Ann B

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Lee-Ann, thanks for your input! I agree. Love that wrench that changes the direction of the story!

      Delete
  17. I'm later stopping by, but wanted to say this is a great post, Debby. I love having a checklist for most anything - - but it's especially helpful for writing!

    First lines are so interesting to me - - I pulled some books from my shelves recently just to read the first line. Quite an assortment!

    The first line of my 3rd book (will release very soon!) popped into my head when I was preparing to begin the story. At first I thought it was silly, but that line just wouldn't leave me, LOL. As it turns out, my Editor loved it, so I was glad I didn't delete it!
    Thank you again for this post. It was SO wonderful seeing you last week!! :)
    Hugs, Patti Jo

    ReplyDelete
  18. So glad the first line in your third book resonated with the editor! Way to go, Patti Jo!

    Love you, dear friend. Congrats on your publishing success!

    ReplyDelete
  19. Hi Debby:

    This has been a really interesting post. I've read all the comments and hope there are more tomorrow. I am also going to enjoy leaving a short comment!

    ReplyDelete
  20. Great check list, Debby! First chapters are so FUN to write, but CHALLENGING to get everything in there that needs to be in there. So many things that need to be clearly established in order to carry your reader (and the writer!) happily to THE END!

    ReplyDelete
  21. You're a pro at writing first chapters, Glynna! Love your stories.

    ReplyDelete
  22. How did you know that I'm working on my first chapter right now??? Your timing is perfect, Debby! I'll be referring to this post often. Thank you!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. HI Jan! I know your first chapter is perfect!

      Hugs!

      Delete
  23. I love learning how authors think and plan. I want a story that I can become immersed in, without techniques being blatantly obvious. Your checklist seems to cover the story requirements.

    ReplyDelete
  24. Debby, early in my writing career, someone told me chapter 1 will reveal the following: the character and all of his or her features, the setting, and the conflict. I've adapted that strategy into all of my books. Another thing I've done was to drag out as long as possible the details of what the character is going through. In that way, that will cause the reader to turn the pages, to keep them guessing what is going on.

    ReplyDelete