Here’s How You Nail the First Chapter of Your Novel!

Note: If you’ve read my post on character versus role, then consider this post a sort of follow up to that one. Both posts are crucial.

An amazing thing happened when, one day, I needed to get back into my writing groove after a week of avoiding it as if it were the plague. I made up two exercises for myself to do that morning; step one is called Character Perceptions Exercise and its counterpart is the Roles Perceptions Exercise. I did both for four different, random texts I had nearby – two of which were the first chapter of Marv Wolfman’s Suicide Squad: The Official Movie Novelization and The Great Gatsby’s first five pages by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

The Character Perceptions Exercise follows the following rules: read the first scene, chapter, or few pages of a novel you want to analyze, be it your own or not; as you read, write down the names of the characters you encounter, and next to those names, write the (personality) traits that each of them appears to have – which are, of course, implied by dialogues, descriptions, and interactions by/of/with those characters.

After that comes the Roles Perceptions Exercise, wherein, based on the traits and exposure of the characters you encountered, you predict, strictly as a reader/audience member, what those characters’ roles will be in the rest of the book.

After doing a case study of three popular novels, two modern and a classic, I found a pattern that struck me.

Within a few minutes of starting each book, I was able to: a) get to know who most, if not all, major characters are at their very core; b) understand the roles each character would play in the story; and c) realize not only the direction in which the story was headed, but also accurately determine the point of it.

Many writers do not comprehend the magnificence and true meaning of intros, to date. That’s about to change.

By identifying the nature of characters and their predicted roles from the literature provided in the first chapters of books, writers can better understand how to manipulate their own writing to flawlessly open their novels through their characters and those characters’ (inter)actions, as highly skilled, best-selling authors do.

Let’s examine the architecture of a few novels’ first some odd number of pages, and examine, in depth, how the character and roles perceptions set the stage for entire plots.

SUICIDE SQUAD: THE OFFICIAL MOVIE NOVELIZATION by Marv Wolfman

Two major characters in the large ensemble are introduced to readers in the first chapter of the movie novelization, Dr. June Moon and Enchantress.

In less than 7 mini, mass-market-sized pages, I learned who both people were at their very core and their relationship to one another in the grand scheme of things.

The first chapter revealed that June had been disturbed for a while (by none other than a nightmarish Enchantress), and that she was anxious and vulnerable, but also highly courageous, proactive, and risk-taking, because although she was afraid of Enchantress, she faced her fear head on and actively worked toward ending the misery she was being caused through a dark penetration of her dreams.

In less than a few paragraphs worth of writing a few pages later, I also learned that Enchantress was an overbearing, overwhelming, and powerful spirit who was going to be a serious problem.

Those characteristics aren’t just introductory traits that are there to make a lasting first impression. They’re actually the fundamental traits that make up and define the characters throughout their heroic journeys. Each group of characteristics is foreboding to the characters’ roles in the bigger picture, and the bigger picture itself.

Five minutes into the reading, I figured out that June Moon’s role is to unwittingly answer Enchantress’s call by following the haunting voice in her dreams, and probably also to become the witch’s crutch so that she can make her a place in the human world. Enchantress’s role would be to dominate the human world that abandoned the very idea of her inside a cave.

All that info is implied in the first chapter.

Imagine if you could incorporate that much depth and foreshadowing into your first chapter, or the first ten pages of your screenplay, how much more likely you’d be to get read.

The point of the first chapter is to effectively reveal the intention of a story in a way that entertainingly communicates to the reader what they’re getting from the text as a whole.

If you master how to write such a subtly ingenious first chapter, you accomplish two things. You don’t waste the readers’ time–after all, the more time you waste, the less likely they are to continue reading to the end–and you also establish your entire story without actually making the reader aware that you just pulled a fast one on them.
Incredible, I know. Now let’s look at another case study.

THE GREAT GATSBY by F. Scott Fitzgerald

What a book. I mean, just… what a book! With depth in almost every single sentence, it’s one of those reads you have to revisit every few years to come to appreciate the perfection of it.

Anyway, I was going to review the whole first chapter, but after reading 6 pages, I knew I had already come across the material I’d needed to recognize the pattern of establishing characters, roles, and intentions of the story, right in the beginning. That’s when I came up with a point to prove, and a blog to write.

While I was doing my Character and Roles Exercises on The Great Gatsby, I noticed how cleverly the narrator, Nick, came to reveal Gatsby’s role in the bigger picture of the story. It was truly fascinating – downright natural, even. But let’s start with Nick’s character.

On page one, Nick reveals that something his father used to tell him shaped the man that he became; he’d told his son not to judge others since others had not been as fortunate in life as they had. He admits that he tended to heed his father’s advice more often than not.

What that, in turn, exposes about Nick is that he is impressionable to an extent, more of a listener/ observer by nature, and even that he is open-minded – all because of his reaction (his adoption of that logic and retention of wisdom from his father) to what his father had told him.

Later, on that same page, he acknowledges that he frequently finds himself making excuses so that he wouldn’t have to continue his role as a listener of others’ problems and disclosures. It implies that he felt burdened by the secrets of others’ personal lives.

On page 4, it’s written that Nick was lonely until he came across a man to help, one who was newer than him in town. In helping the man, he found companionship, which reveals that he is the sort of man who helps himself by helping others. It’s also, obviously, how he makes friends.

In the paragraphs that follow, Nick says, “And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees, just as things grow in fast movies, I had that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer,” (Fitzgerald, 4). If that doesn’t scream optimism, I don’t know what does. However, we have been exposed to the realist in Nick as well, so we can assume that he’s generally an optimistic realist.

Now onto the star of the show, the great Gatsby, himself. From only one paragraph on the second page of the novel, I was equipped with all the knowledge I needed to make accurate assumptions about Gatsby’s role in the story.

Read the passage below.

If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away. This responsiveness had nothing to do with that flabby impressionability which is dignified under the name of the ‘creative temperament’—it was an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again. No—Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men. (Fitzgerald, 2)

Can you fathom it, that almost everything (fundamental) that you need to know about the mystery that is Gatsby is all implied from that one passage? Let’s examine.

“If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life” implies that he is an emotional man – not dramatic, just… lively.

“This responsiveness had nothing to do with that flabby impressionability which is dignified under the name of the ‘creative temperament’” suggests that he is not falsely pompous like others; he’s naturally receptive, “responsive,” to life.

“…. It was an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness” means that he was an expectant, eager man, and a charming one, too – if not somewhat over the top with his zest for living.

Last, but not least, is the line, “Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men.” Wow. That right there is Gatsby’s story–and the end of the book–in a nutshell, is it not? Something tragic happens to him later in the novel, and it’s so disheartening for the spectator (Nick) to watch unravel that it closes him off from the world for a while.

As you saw, the first four pages of the book are so laden with meaning and depth, that when you do the Character and Roles Perceptions Exercises, it’s so easy to see that entire novels’ gists are revealed within their first chapters. The average, unsuspecting reader is rarely ever aware of this, however.

You know what that means? You need to go back and take another look at the first chapter of that book you’ve been workin’ on. You do, I do, we all do.

If your first chapter establishes character(s) by implying the protagonist’s/antagonist’s defining personality traits and his/her function within your story, you’re on the right track!

If it (subtly) provides insight into the transformation the protagonist needs to achieve and will soon embark on a journey to reveal, you’re doing great!

And if the intentions—these concern the direction the story will most likely go in and the point of the journey—are sewn neatly into the storytelling of that first chapter, more power to you!

You’re ready to go on to, or start editing, your second chapter!

References

Fitzgerald, F. S. (2004). The great Gatsby. New York: Scribner Paperback Fiction.

Wolfman, M. (2016). Suicide squad: the official movie novelization. London: Titan Books.

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4 thoughts on “Here’s How You Nail the First Chapter of Your Novel!

  1. I’ve learned a crucial lesson from every one of your posts. Today’s, I think, is the most crucial yet. I thought I had a good opening to my novel, but you’ve given me an idea that might make it a great opening. I agree with the previous comment; The Great Gatsby is a great novel to refer to. I keep Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and “The Sun Also Rises” at my elbow when I write. I tend to wordiness and need to refresh my memory on what tight writing looks like. Thanks for the wonderful writing insights.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m thrilled that my posts are of help! The insight I gained from reading a pile of first chapters and doing the exercises for them put me in awe – teaching me that there are significant, albeit underlying, things, that we as writers may overlook as we read and reflect, and then go on to neglect as we write, causing our fiction to lack a depth we have not fathomed as yet. That realization inspired this whole blog! The first chapter lesson is one of the more crucial ones for me as well.

    Like

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