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Tip Tuesday #94

Tip Tuesday is a recurring feature where blog readers send in tips for fellow writers. If you'd like to send in a tip, please e-mail me at agentspotlight(at)gmail(dot)com.

Today I have a fantastic series of tips on beginnings by Laura Lascarso whose debut YA COUNTING BACKWARDS comes out from Atheneum August 2012. Hating that wait! For more info on Laura and her book, please visit her blog.

Once Upon a Time: Writing Chapter One

By Laura Lascarso

Beginnings are hard. The only thing harder is middles and ends. And because my mind tends to scattershot when faced with a blank page, I like to have rules. Chapter One rules, if you will. I’ve collected these guidelines from a variety of sources—books on writing, critique partners, conferences, blogs… Please don’t make me source them.

1. Start in the middle.

Drop me right into the action, no waking up, no looking in the mirror bemoaning life, looks and waning popularity, and absolutely no dreaming. I want to be there right before the anvil falls, so to speak. Something I’ve done in the past, is to write my entire opening scene, then erase the first half. Make it like a party, arrive late and in a tight red dress (or an ascot, feather boa, etc.)

2. Avoid talking heads.

Continuing with the party analogy, what happens when everyone introduces themselves to you at once? A. You forget their names almost immediately and B. You have no idea who’s who. Introduce characters in order of importance and keep your descriptions succinct and meaningful.

3. Make me care.

If the reader doesn’t care about the character, they don’t care about their problems. That said, don’t give the reader wet toast either. Wow em with character. Also, flaws are sexy.

4. Show don’t tell.

This is the writer’s mantra, but in addition, I will also say, save the info dump for chapter two. Give the reader a few pages to live your character’s life in the present before visiting the past. Pretend you are a playwright and you don’t have a scrim to flashback.

5. Reel me in.

You can’t catch a fish without a hook and your first chapter should have a few. Cultivate a mystique. Like a first date, you can hint at your OCD compulsion to scrub the bathroom grout with bleach and a toothbrush, but don’t go into too much detail. Let the reader draw their own conclusions about why your character acts the way she does. It’s okay to wonder.

6. Conflict.

You don’t have a story without conflict. Even if it’s not spelled out in your first chapter, at least hint at it. Internal conflict as well as external.

7. Go out with a bang.

Similar to the way you entered the party, exit Chapter One in the same fashion. Something explosive, intriguing, fantastical. Something that makes the reader want to turn the page and ask—what happens next?!

Is this asking a lot? YES! But a great first chapter will not only grab the attention of an agent or editor, it will give the reader confidence that you can pull this thing off. 300 pages is a big commitment for a reader to make. Let them know that you’re in the driver’s seat and you know where this ride is going.

Got some rules of your own? Or are you a rule breaker? Share em with the class.


Matthew MacNish said...

First off: this wins post of the day for using the word scrim, and comparing it to backstory (sort of).

Second: excellent advice. I read a quote the other day (I can't remember exactly what it said), that basically was like "I can't write the beginning until I've written the end. How can I know where to start until I know where I'll end up?"

It was much more well put than that, but you get the point.

Brittany said...

Thanks for this tip! I agree with all of these rules. I learned from the book Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell to have some kind of "disturbance" to the protagonist's life within the first few chapters. It doesn't have to be the main conflict yet, but it's something that leads up to it. (Ex: Harry receiving a letter from Hogwarts in the 1st HP book)

Emily R. King said...

All great tips! As I was reading them I was comparing them to the first chapter of my current WIP and checking them off in my head. Thanks for the post!

Kelley said...

Really great tips. I just ranted on my blog about how I hate slow beginnings so it's like the clouds opened up when you said the same (go red dress parties!). Great advice :)

The Pen and Ink Blogspot said...

Thank you. For further jump starts check our blogs on first paragraphs. Sometimes reading someone else's start can fuel your own.

Natalie Aguirre said...

Great tips. The first chapter is so critical to get right. I have written mine a zillion times. Editors told me for my fantasy that they wanted a scene in this world before I started the adventure. I ended up revising the chapter per their suggestions and got much better critques.

Good luck with your debut.

Laila Knight said...

I loved this advice about the first chapter. I have to say that for as long as I've been writing the first chapter is always the hardest, not to write, but to fill with action.

Heather said...

Avoid talking heads, I love that! Thanks for the excellent tips. I'm taking notes...My main rule is to allow myself to write a rough first draft. Meaning, I'm not allowed to edit until the first draft is complete. On occasion (okay a lot), I do break that rule. :)

Miles of the Journey said...

Love the way you write. There is an excitement to it which makes me want to ferret out my first chapter blunders

Laura Lascarso said...

:) Happy to be helpful!

Theresa Milstein said...

I agree with your list. You got all the important points.

My first manuscript started with a wake up. i switched it to a dream during editing. You can see I had a lot to learn! I've gotten much, much better.

Lauren @ Pure Text said...

You don't have to cite your sources--any writer who reads will concur with your rules.

I love them because they don't only apply to beginnings. (And I love them because I just finished my editing work day and thus have spare time, and this list just inspired me to work my own story. Inspiration--yum!)

Martha Ramirez said...

Awesome post! Thank you.

Jessie Humphries said...

This is a great post. An awesome refresher course. Another great tip I got from agent Sara Megibow at a conference last month was not to start with dialogue. Action first.

Paula said...

Love the party comparison.

A writing instructor suggested the last chapter should reflect or come full circle to the first, have some connection to tie them together in setting, event, emotion. Starts with death, end with new life. . .

Sara Flower said...

These are great! Very helpful - as your blog always is. :)

By the way, I gave you two blog awards. Check them out on my blog. :D

Barbara Watson said...

Great post. Introduce characters in order of importance. I haven't heard it stated quite like that. Thank you.

Carolina M. Valdez Schneider said...

Excellent! A great list of chapter one rules!