Pacing Your First Chapter

Writing a novel is hard, it takes both a lot of work and a lot of persistence. And then, to get readers or agents actually read it, your first chapter has a lot of work to do, especially when you’ve created your own setting. Getting the pacing just right, especially in your first chapter is a challenge for most writers.

I’m currently editing a novel that I hope to start sending to agents in the next couple of months and I’ve really been worried about the pacing of my first chapter because it has so much to do.

Things your first chapter needs to do:

  1. Introduce the characters
  2. Show the world
  3. Set up the central conflict
  4. Balance the characters, the setting, and the plot details so it all blends without letting the pacing drop

It’s a lot to ask of one chapter, and everyone has their own technique for making it work. Most of us can tell when it’s working, but it can be a struggle to know exactly what needs fixing.

5 Techniques to hone a first chapter

As with all writing advice, do what works for you and your process, but here are some of the multitude of techniques I’ve heard from other writers.

Build to the inciting incident

The inciting incident is the thing that kicks the main character out of status quo and starts the plot. It usually carries the plot through at least the first third of the story, but its consequences echo further.

Agents these days are asking for the inciting incident to happen within the first ten pages. While there is a current bias toward fast-paced stories, even slower stories should be introducing the concepts that will set up the inciting incident, or foreshadow it.

Ask yourself, “Am I starting in the right place?”

I’ve heard many, many publishing professionals say that most stories, especially from debut authors start in the wrong spot — usually too early.

The writer wants to explain what’s going on, show how the character got into the mess in the first place, or really delve into the expansive world they’ve created. While often you need to write these pages for yourself, so you know your character and world’s backstory, it often doesn’t need to be on the page for the final draft.

Occasionally, the writer starts too late — often during the inciting incident. Many writers are given the advice to start ‘in media res’, in the middle of things, and so they start during the peak of an argument or the moment the chase gets dangerous. While exciting, your readers don’t know enough to care about your characters. Getting the balance right without slowing the pace can be a challenge. Often, it’s easier to back up, just a little bit. Back the story up five minutes and let the tension build.

Scatter your infodumps

While infodumps are generally considered something to avoid in novels, many writers find a character in their pages explaining (for the reader’s sake), with long “as you know, Bob,” diatribes on how the world works or what the character’s backstory is.

But when you’ve got all of this backstory you need to explain so that the readers will understand the character’s motivation and world-building so the readers can visualize the world, you need to convey the information somehow. Making your readers care about your character is important. Establishing your setting and showing how it influences the characters and plot is important.

Thus, you filter it through dialogue and action. Sprinkle it in, one to two sentences at a time, while the characters are doing something, or saying other things. Although, if the reader has to skim back to remember the dialogue the character is replying to, you’ve added too much.

The exception to the ‘no diatribes’ rule, since most characters don’t go around explaining or thinking about how normal things in their world work, is complaining. While we don’t explain how doors work, we do complain about them swinging the wrong way. We will complain in excruciating detail everything we hate about our routines.

Write the first chapter last

Some writers pick a starting point and go from there, but once they’ve finished writing the manuscript and know the shape of the ending, they use that to echo the themes from the resolution back at the beginning. This technique, when done with a deft touch, can add to a reader’s sense of satisfaction at the end.

Have a new reader critique your first chapter

As the writer of the opening chapter, knowing everything about the world, and the characters, and what’s to come, it is impossible for you to see what is there.

While you can read the words, none of it is new knowledge to you, so it’s hard to tell how clear your explanations are. It’s hard to tell what’s confusing because the reader doesn’t know a certain detail that’s explained concisely a few pages on.

People who have already beta-read your stories, or critiqued your pages are going to have (a lighter version) of the same problem. Thus, you need a fresh reader, especially on polished first chapters.

Get fresh eyes on your opening pages before you send them out.

Closing thoughts

I occasionally use my own advice. Back to my space fantasy? I’m currently moving my inciting incident closer to the beginning of the story. Plus, I had a fresh reader go over it, and while there were one or two problem spots, for the most part, I’d scattered my infodumps with a light touch

What authors rock the first chapter?
Are there any techniques that you use that I missed?
Which is your favorite tip?

1 Comment

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s