The third installment of my continuing class at Blue Ridge focused on first chapters. And while, for the most part, a good first chapter does the same thing as a good first page to a deeper extent, there are a few more considerations when writing your opening chapter. While most of the answers to these considerations depend largely upon the genre and style of the novel you’re working on, there are a few consistent guidelines that seem to work well.
CHAPTER LENGTH: One question to think about is how long your initial chapter should be. While there is no hard and fast rule, there seems to be a correlation with chapter length and point of view. First person POV chapters tend to be a bit shorter, as do 3rd person limited. However, if you’re doing several third person limited POVs in several different scenes, your chapter will be longer. There tends to be a trend toward shorter chapters. In several of Dean Koontz’s books he uses what can best be defined as “flash” chapters, usually only spanning three or four pages. The books he does this in are usually told in first person.
Shorter chapters do have some benefits. For example, many readers look forward to the end of a chapter as a sense of accomplishment. Also, they look forward to stopping at a chapter break before the begin another project or go to work or bed etc. It’s a lot easier to start at the beginning of a chapter than it is to start back in the middle. At least, that’s the common feeling. Therefore, shorter chapters are better for some readers.
Longer chapters, however, can sometimes keep readers more engrossed and engaged in the action of the prose. Books that are longer, more “epic” in scale, will often use larger chapters because they have more viewpoint characters. Readers of this genre expect longer chapters, and are more willing to read through them to completion.
CLIFFHANGERS: Several writers will tell you to end your chapter on a cliffhanger. The thought is to keep the reader engaged. “Oh, I can’t stop now,” they’ll say. But if you don’t do it well, it can send the wrong signal to the reader—a message that says that you don’t have control of your prose. Avoid breaking a chapter and starting the next a second later in the same viewpoint. In that case, why break the chapter there? Because there’s a good line of dialogue? This is a sign of an amateur writer more than anything else. Instead, break your chapter where it should be broken, a shift in time or perspective.
I use general plot points to know when to break chapters. If you think of your story in context of an outline, consider your breaks on the Roman numerals or the Capital letters (depending on how many sub-points you have each chapter). Whatever the case, try to keep the lengths of your chapters somewhat consistent, otherwise your reader will be confused.
BACKSTORY: There is a temptation when beginning your story to tell all the backstory you can to give the reader the context they need to start the story. However, we don’t need nearly as much as you think we do. For example, Lewis doesn’t give us the life story of all four kids before the war in the Chronicles of Narnia, when they lost their first teeth or what they got on their spelling tests that year. He simply starts with the four leaving their home—a source of great turmoil for the children. Bradbury doesn’t tell us how Montag became a fireman. He just lets us know that he enjoys his job. Backstory is best left for later. Give us only what we need, when we need it. And we don’t necessarily need it in Chapter One. All we need is a sense of time, place, and character.
In short summation, your first chapters must:
Focus on the protagonist
Develop a central conflict
Develop central characters