Even if you are pre-published and entering contests or sending queries, you know how all important that first chapter is - perhaps the only thing an agent or publisher will ever read of your work.
So where do you begin?
I thought I had picked a good spot in the "middle of the action" with my early drafts of The Scarlet Coat, my new release. Rachel, the heroine watched for the return of her father and brother after a Revolutionary War battle. She held up in an old fort with others from their small settlement, praying for the lives of her loved ones. Then someone sees the returning soldiers and everyone goes to meet them. Rachel's family isn't there so she panics and rides off to find them, pausing at home briefly to make sure they hadn't gone directly there.
Chapter two took her to the battlefield and the carnage of Oriskany where she makes a decision that changes her life forever.
This was an alright start, but I wasn't winning any contests or signing any contracts.
Next I tried cutting half of my first chapter and starting with Rachel at the cabin, knowing her father and brother hadn't returned and racing off to find them. I tacked chapter two onto the back of it.
Still not quite right.
Finally I tossed all of chapter one out the window. Now the sun was setting and our heroine was getting her first view of the battle field.
As soon as I'd made the change, I realised the original was all story set up - NOT story.
Was it painful to cut a full chapter?
Was there a lot of information that still I needed and had to place elsewhere?
Yes, but that was probably for the best.
Is my start much stronger?
I think so....and thankfully so did my publisher. ;)
What do you think?
The last rays of sun faded into twilight, and the wind whispered through the trees, as if warning Rachel to turn back. She encouraged her pa’s stallion forward, though her pulse threatened to strangle her. Somewhere, not far away, a wolf wailed into the night. The mournful song resonated within her, bespeaking tragedy. She searched the deepening shadows of the forest. What if all the British hadn’t retreated? What if there were still Indians and Tories out there, waiting behind those trees?
Something unseen rustled the leaves, and a twig snapped. Lord, what am I doing? How would she even find them out here in the dark? Maybe she should go home or to the Reids’ for another night.
Her course of action seemed so clear when General Herkimer, and what remained of his regiment and the local militia, limped their way alongside the Mohawk River from Oriskany. The general lay on a stretcher, his leg below the knee wrapped in a crimson cloth, his face pale and expressionless—like so many of the men with him. Eight hundred had marched north the day before yesterday and barely half returned.
Her pa and brother were not among them.
Stay with the Reids. That was all Pa had asked of her. Benjamin Reid’s bad leg compelled him to remain behind and watch over their farms. Though the safest place for her, Rachel could no longer wait there trying to carry on a casual conversation with any of the Reid girls or hide behind her mother’s Bible. She couldn’t abide the confines of their snug cabin a minute longer without knowing her own family’s fate. Since losing Mama to illness two years ago, Pa and Joseph were all she had. She couldn’t lose them, too. But she’d ridden for hours now. Where was she?
A little farther along the trail, the wind shifted slightly, carrying on it the odor of burnt powder and blood. Battle. Rachel’s hand came to her stomach in an attempt to calm the sickness churning within.
The horse whinnied, shifting as he tossed his head.
“Whoa. Easy, Hunter.” She slid to the ground and surveyed her surroundings. Both sides of the road were heavily treed and thick with underbrush. Even still, she could make out the dark forms of fallen men. She stumbled over her feet but kept moving. “Joseph! Pa!” You can’t be dead.
Dragging the horse, Rachel ran. Each step constricted her throat until she could hardly breathe. Bodies littered the road—Indian, Tory, and American alike. She maneuvered around them, searching faces in the faint glow of the remaining light. She should have brought a lantern.
The road sloped downward into a deep ravine. Her feet faltered. Hundreds of men—a patchwork of blue and homespun. All motionless. All dead. If only she could close her eyes or turn away, but every muscle held her in place.
The rasp of a voice jolted her from the trance. She yelped and spun toward the intruder.
“Rachel?” The murmur of her name accompanied the form of a man emerging from the trees. “What are you doing here?”
To finish reading the first chapter pop by Colonial Quills, or find on Amazon.
I still find it hard to write the first chapter of a book, but now I consider these three things when plotting those first few paragraphs:
- Is this where the story really begins? I often begin books thinking "of course this is where the action and story and EVERYTHING begins, only to find out that, nope, this is still too early. The start of a story should have an element of change to it--what is about to change in your protagonist's life and propel them another 100-400 pages?
- Is this necessary? If there is information I want included, is it necessary to include it now? Or can the reader be on a "need to know" basis? There is so much information you need to feed into that first paragraph and that first chapter while setting the scene and the tone and introducing the characters - try to leave out anything not absolutely necessary until later. Characters are allowed some secrets and some mystery. Often the things that keep the pages turning is what hasn't been told.
- Is it gripping? The information may be important, but if it's not going to keep the reader's interest, what will compel them to keep reading? The first few pages need to grab the reader's attention and hold on tight. You might keep a outdoor enthusiast captivated by all the details of mackerel fishing, but the average person doesn't pick up a novel to be be taught. They want to be entertained. Learning is a happy side effect of a great book.
These are just some of my thoughts. I am interested to hear yours. What do you look for in a great beginning?