The First Chapter – Doing it Right

Gift of Blood was my very first novel, ever, written in the heat of unlocked inspiration during NaNoWriMo in 2009. For a first novel, it isn’t that bad. When I dragged it out and reread it a little while back, as a prelude to a second draft, a big, glaring newbie mistake jumped out. The First Chapter.

So here are the characters: Hannah, the star of the whole thing. Patrick, a strong secondary who does his job and then disappears half-way through. Sarita, who has a past with Patrick and makes her one and only appearance in that first chapter. The entire chapter is between Patrick and Sarita. Hannah is nowhere in sight. I wanted to give some of the background in that chapter, and strong clues as to how the novel was going to go. That wasn’t the way to do it. It’s a good chapter, worth keeping, but it’s in the wrong place, so it’s now chapter three. The original chapter two is now chapter one. It tells us a lot about Hannah, gives intriguing hints about Patrick, and begins to show us the background.

The Warden came out of last year’s NaNo and has somewhat the same problem. It opens with a long chapter that sets up the background and introduces us to Ross.  The problem? It’s all about a not very important secondary character. Switching chapters isn’t going to work this time because we have to know at least a little about Ross right from the beginning. So I have two choices: shorten the first chapter drastically (I’ve already cut it way down), or make Ross more important later on. Only two choices? How about cutting drastically, making Ross more important, and letting us see some of the events of chapter one in his thoughts and/or flashbacks.

Why is solving the Warden’s first chapter more difficult? Gift of Blood has a very small cast, and Hannah is onstage almost all the time. It’s also pretty straightforward and linear. The Warden has a large cast with two strong protagonists, and complex and shifting interactions between them and the secondary characters. In both books, the opening chapters delayed getting into what’s important about the stories. Gift of Blood is Hannah’s drama. The Warden is Den’s drama, but we don’t meet him until halfway through chapter two.

In a way, the first chapters of both books act like prologues and are good examples of why prologues should be avoided unless they’re handled very carefully. The important question to ask about a prologue is whether it’s vital to the story. My guess is that nine times out of ten, it isn’t.

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