Sunday, March 27, 2011

Self-Editing: Essential Elements for Chapter One

I dare you to pick up any book released as a major publication and check out the first page or two.  I can guarantee you they'll include the following.

Does yours?

The 5 W's: Who, Where, When, What & Why

Obviously there's a limit to exactly how much ground you can cover in 500 words.  But don't underestimate the power of that first page.  Pick up any novel that 'hooked' you from very beginning and you'll find at least three of those W's present probably as early as the first paragraph.  Maybe even the first sentence.

They're fairly self-explanatory, so I won't spend a lot of time:

WHO:  Whose skin am I in? 

WHERE:  Physical location and setting.

WHEN:  World-building is a HUGE component in those first words, so consider at least giving the time of day and a hint at the time / space continuem.  Maybe you can offer the season by painting a picture of the leaves (or lack thereof).  Whatever.  Just keep in mind, the more information your reader absorbs without realizing it, the more fixed in the world they'll feel.

WHAT:  Could be as simple as whether they're driving, walking, talking, etc, or it could be (and hopefully will be) as engaging as placing the focal character on the frontline of a war, or engaged in making out with their hot boyfriend / girlfriend.  Wherever they are, make sure they're DOING something. 

WHY:  This won't always be clear in the first pages, but make sure you don't leave the reader hanging completely.  If you can't offer the story question on the first page, then at least give the character a goal or intent.  Have them aiming for something the reader can shoot for too (even if they don't know exactly why at this early stage).

Simple?  Great.  Let's move on.

TROUBLE: Creating Danger and / or Presenting a Problem

This one sounds simple, but in my experience its one of those blind-spots for us novice authors.  We feel the tension, trouble or implications of a situation for our focal characters because we KNOW the story.

Fresh eyes though?  Sometimes it's not as clear to them.

I'm not suggesting you should spell out t-r-o-u-b-l-e, but find a way to introduce change that threatens the life, livelihood or eternal happiness of your character and your reader will read on to find out whether they're going to overcome this terrible problem.


FOUNDATION: Tying Motivation and Response to Create Realism

This one's important regardless of whether you're in the first two, middle five, or last page of your manuscript:  The way to keep a reader reading, and convinced your world is real, is to tie their actions, thoughts, feelings and words to motivating stimulus.

It's how our lives work for real, so it makes any world believable.

- Rather than a character randomly deciding to pick up the newspaper that morning (which is going to tell them their estranged father has been indicted), have the character receive a phone call for comment on the story.

- Or maybe your teenage protagonist wants to be Prom Queen.  Instead of just steeling themselves to ask that gorgeous guy out, have them witness the most beautiful (and annoying) girl in class sauntering up the to the object of their attention and flirt with him.

In short - give the story a launching point.

Then take it down to the detail: When one character speaks to another, make sure the response is both logical and timely.

When an event occurs that makes your character feel something, give the reader their response right away - in thought, action and / or speech. 

Your character needs to be doing something to move your story forward, so give them a reason to do it. 

That's what makes a story realistic and helps the reader suspend disbelief long enough to fall for your fallen angels, superhero teens, cool-guy-falling-for-nerd-girl, etc, etc, etc.

There's more, but those are the most important, I think.  Now, go forth and write!

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Your Turn: What else is crucial for those first 500 words, in your opinion?

PS - I've already had a couple submissions for the First 500 Critique Series. (I'm impressed with your fearlessness my writerly friends). I'll be kicking that series off in the next couple of days. 

If you think your first 500 words hit all the major points above and would like to submit it for the critique series, send it to me (in the body of an email) at - I'll look forward to hearing from you.


  1. Great things to think about, especially when considering the first few pages are the most important to grab an agents attention. Great post to keep on hand and look at each time you start writing.

  2. Great post! The only thing I can think to add right now would be to watch out for the info dump. Give just enough detail to entice the reader, but don't over explain. If you can leave in some mystery, that will help hook the reader.

    Again, great post. :)

  3. OOooo! You've reminded me, Victorine: NO BACKSTORY.

    The end.