Week 5, Step 5: “The First Sentences and Chapters”

I will be the first to tell you – I stink at writing first chapters. To this day I’ve only written one first chapter that I actually like. For some reason I can’t seem to get the feel for how fast to pace my writing and add action but still add detail. It’s so frustrating. So here’s some tips that I’ve learned from all my struggles and pain that I hope will help you in some ways.

On First Sentences:

Generally speaking, every single sentence in your book should make the readers ask a question. If the sentence doesn’t make them ask a question, it needs to be either incredibly suspenseful or very descriptive. This is particularly true for sentences for your first few sentences. You’re probably wondering, “What do you mean, a sentence that asks a question? You mean all my sentences end with question marks?” Not really. Basically, what I’m saying is that your first couple of sentences must grab the reader, feed their curiosity, and get them to keeping reading the next sentence, the next paragraph, the next page, and the next chapter! Here’s an example from my first book that may help you:

“Jarah ran down the dark, narrow street.”

Now, here are some questions we as readers can ask ourselves about this sentence, questions that weren’t answered. “Who is Jarah? Why is she running? Why is the street dark? Where is she?”

Here’s the second sentence:

“Her breath was coming in short, painful gasps and her legs felt like they were made of putty.”

We can get some answers here, but we can still ask from questions. “So… Jarah must’ve been running for a while… But why? Why is she so tired?”

Here’s the third sentence:

“Tired as she was, she could not let the Egyptian soldiers get her.”

This answers some questions. We know that Jarah is being chased, but we also don’t know why she’s being chased.

Here’s the three sentences together:

“Jarah ran down the dark, narrow street. Her breath was coming in short, painful gasps and her legs felt like they were made of putty. Tired as she was, she could not let the Egyptian soldiers get her.”

Do these first few sentences grab you? How can you make your first few sentences grab your readers?

On First Chapters:

As I told you, I have a very hard time with writing first chapters. I wrote chapter one of “A Cry From Egypt” so many different ways and I’m still not completely happy with it! My first chapter for book 2 is going a little better, but I still feel like something’s missing. So if you struggle in this area, you’re not alone!

Here’s a few tips for you that I’ve learned through lots of trial and error:

1. Keep the pace moving. Have some excitement or adventure! Having an opening scene of someone cleaning a house, sharpening a weapon, sitting reading, or doing something else boring doesn’t make for an exciting first few chapters. But some sort of action sequence or a sob story that makes you feel so much for your characters is a much better way to start. And if all else fails and you run out of creativity, start with a party. :-) Seriously, though. Parties can show so much emotional and character development but also give some fun, humor, and action all at the same time.

2. Avoid unnecessary detail. Keep people guessing! Don’t tell people exactly how your characters look, exactly how old they are, and exactly what everything looks like. Not only does it not feed your readers’ curiosity, but it slows down your pace and makes things boring. Here’s an example:

“The eight-year-old blonde little girl with big blue eyes, tiny white shoes, and a flowing pink dress sat on a small wooden swing tied to a giant white oak tree, looking very sad.”

That is a ton of detail and almost all of it is completely unnecessary! We can say the same thing in half as many words:

“The little blonde girl sat sorrowfully on a swing in the shade of a giant oak tree.”

It sets up the scene with some detail but doesn’t slow things down. It almost makes you wonder why the little girl is sad.

3. Make sure everything goes fast! I’ve already mentioned pacing a few times. You need something that’s going to go keep your book moving and acting. No boring moments allowed! Keep pressing forward and try to keep the audience at the edge of their seats!

4. Introduce your main characters and villain in the first few chapters. And also make sure you introduce the problems in your story that your main character (or characters) has to solve. There are two problems in my story “A Cry From Egypt.” The first is that the Israelites are slaves in Egypt and want to become free. The second is that Jarah’s mother believes in the Egyptian gods and Jarah’s father believes in Yahweh. Jarah is torn between them and has to decide what she believes. Both of these problems are presented in the first two chapters.

So there are my tips! As I’ve said, most of this I’ve learned from trial and error. It’s alright if it takes you a little while. It took my seven years! Don’t be discouraged. Keep writing!

Suggested Homework:

1. Write a few different opening paragraphs from your story. Keep tweaking them until they every sentence is perfect.

2. Write your first two chapters if you haven’t already. If you already have, go through them and start deleting unnecessary detail and fine-tuning it using what you’ve learned today. If you’re writing a short story, write the first few pages and start critiquing them.

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