Beginning of the First Chapter
When you’re starting a story, it can be very tempting to start at the beginning of the first day of the story’s timeline. So that’s why we’re inclined to start with alarm clocks, opening eyes, or waking with a start from a weird dream. But those first pages of the story are more important than any other. They’re your reader’s first glimpse at the story’s world and the character who will guide them through it. They’re also your reader’s introduction to you as the writer–the quality, style, and ability to keep them interested. So you really don’t want to open on a throwaway shot like waking up first thing in the morning.
The first scene of your story should be a snapshot of your character’s life before their world is turned upside down. Bella is driven to the airport by her mom as she moves to Forks to live with her dad. Katinss wakes up and goes hunting with Gale before the Reaping. Mare navigates a crowd as she finds people to pickpocket on her way to First Friday. Tris gets a haircut from her mother before leaving for the five factions aptitude test. So, consider what you want this snapshot to look like for your character. What’s an everyday thing they could be doing before the crazy thing happens that changes their lives forever? Once you figure out what the scene is going to be, just dive right in.
Let’s say your story is about a woman whose plans change when she and her long-term boyfriend break up. And let’s say that breakup (the inciting incident) is going to take place during a fancy dinner, which she’s actually expecting him to propose during. So, where do you start the story? Well, what does an average day look like for your character? What do they do for a living? How do they spend their time? Who do they spend it with? Maybe the breakup story character works in human resources at the headquarters of a big restaurant chain, along with her best friend of several years. Why not start there? Maybe she’s in the break room eating lunch with her best friend, and they’re chatting about the fancy dinner coming up, and how they’re both sure the boyfriend is going to propose. Maybe they even get ahead of themselves and start enthusing over possible wedding details. This scene is your chance to establish a normal day for your character, introduce characters who are important to your character at the beginning of the story, illustrate some of your character’s flaws, and even introduce their internal goal. Plus, you get to start setting the wheels in motion toward the big fiasco, or whatever the inciting incident will be.
Some quick tips:
1) Start in the middle of something happening. Your character should be in motion, doing something–whether that’s eating, giving a presentation, driving, being driven, pickpocketing in a crowd, fishing with grandpa, writing on a chalkboard, shopping for a new bikini, serving ale in a tavern, whatever–they just need to be doing something.
2) Avoid starting with an info dump.
3) Remember, you want to hook your reader. Whatever’s happening should be interesting. It should be gripping. It should make the reader just curious enough to keep reading. Maybe writing on a chalkboard isn’t interesting in and of itself, but what’s being written on the chalkboard and how does it subtly relate to the themes in the story? What’s happening around the character while they’re writing on the chalkboard? What are they thinking about? There are interesting things happening, you just have to decide what they are.
4) Craft your opening line so that it’s really eye-catching. “It took seven years to get the letter right.” (Stephanie Garber, Caraval) “I’ve read many more books than you.” (Nicola Yoon, Everything, Everything) “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” (J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s/Philosopher’s Stone) “It is the first day of November, and so, today, someone will die.” (Maggie Stiefvater, The Scorpio Races) “When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him.” (Cormac McCarthy, The Road) A well-crafted first line helps to set the tone for your story and hooks the reader right from the start.
Best of luck with your first chapter! You’ve got this!