Conflict, choices, and consequences are the engine that powers your story and engages your readers. How can you build these three Cs into your first chapter? What are the types of conflict, and how can you use them to your advantage? Finally, what is the fourth C to make your first chapter irresistible?
A story without conflict is pointless and boring. The seeds of conflict need to be sown in the first chapter if possible. In The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins manages to introduce conflict in the first paragraph. Achieving this in the first paragraph is not always possible, but make sure you introduce some kind of conflict in the first chapter.
Conflict takes place in two places: internally, within the character, and externally. Ideally, your MC’s internal and external conflict will complement one another.
Internal conflict is usually centered on a “knot” your character is struggling to untie or a lie your character has accepted as the truth. Internal conflict can also be about a characters struggle with religion, spirituality, fate, or God. The external conflict brings the character’s internal struggle into focus and puts something the character cares about at stake.
For example in The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen cares very deeply about her younger sister, Prim. For the first time, Prim is old enough to be a potential victim of the reaping. The only thing Katniss wants for herself is not to be chosen to compete in the games. But when Prim’s name is selected, Katniss’s inner desires collide with her external circumstances.
In my story, Healer’s Curse, Lady Elilan wants to be seen as an upstanding member of society. She suspects her healing gift is a curse. Despite this inner conflict, she tries to use her gift to save her mother-in-law with disastrous consequences. Her reputation was in danger at the beginning, but it is shattered by the end of the first chapter.
Every scene must include conflict. Conflict demands a choice, and every choice results in consequences.
Write that heading out on a piece of paper and tape the paper above your desk. If a scene is missing conflict, then what is it doing in your story? Conflict gives your scene a reason to exist.
So, I’m going to repeat that: Every scene must include conflict. Conflict demands a choice, and every choice results in consequences.
But what about choice? More about that in a few minutes.
Let’s get a handle on seven types of conflict. If you are having difficulties with generating enough conflict in your story, maybe this list of categories will help.
Types of Conflict
- Character vs. Self – I would venture to say that nearly every story has this form of conflict when the character has inner debate and battles of will within themselves. Emma by Jane Austen is an excellent example of a story built around one person’s journey from insufferable know-it-all to an humble friend who is able to admit her mistakes.
- Character vs. Character – Harry Potter vs. Voldemort or Batman vs. Superman or rivals for a gold medal in the Olympics. These are classic examples of character vs. character. Notice that the last example, the rival athletes, does not star a villain. The athletes can both be good people who have similar abilities; they are racers separated by hundredths of seconds. Who will win out? Who will go home with a silver medal? The reader can pick a side, but the antagonist does not have to be evil. A well-meaning teacher can work at cross-purposes with a star student because they have differing motivations. I think we lose sight of this when we are thinking about conflict because we sometimes think we always have to have a villain.
- Character vs. Society – Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) is an excellent example of this conflict; the book depicts a society in which fertile women are deemed to be handmaids, reproductive slaves to the upper crust. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960), depicts the plight of a black man, falsely accused, and the white lawyer who agrees to defend him against a biased society.
- Character vs. Nature – Hatchet by Gary Paulsen (1986) is the tale of a teen boy stranded in the wilderness after a freak plane crash. Any story that pits people against nature probably falls in this category.
- Character vs. Technology – The human fear of technology and scientific innovation inspired Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein which features the terrifying results of scientific experimentation gone wrong, as does Robert Louis Stephenson’s novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Not to mention all the stories that feature humans battling computers, surveillance, and nanotechnology these days.
- Character vs. Supernatural – Many fairytales like “Hansel and Gretel,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and “Jack and the Beanstalk,” fall in this category where humans are pitted against magical beings or those with supernatural powers, be they gods, talking animals, ghosts, omens, witches, demons, and so on. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis, Homer’s Odyssey, and A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness fit here.
- Character vs. Fate – This category could be a subcategory of Character vs. Supernatural; however, fate wins. A great example of this conflict is the novel and play about Elphaba, a character the reader knows is destined to become the infamous Wicked Witch of the West. In Wicked by Gregory Maguire, we cannot at first understand how the title character fulfills her destiny, her fate. This tension makes for a story we cannot put down. The entire arc of the Harry Potter series is built on a prophecy that neither Harry nor Voldemort can live while the other survives. These are examples of character vs. fate.
Conflict in the First Chapter
I have used big, global conflict examples, but how can we include conflict in the first chapter? The conflict you include can hint at the global conflict to come, or it can simply be a small thing the character is facing in the moment.
Let’s take a couple of the stories mentioned previously as examples.
In Hatchet by Gary Paulsen, we join the thirteen-year-old protagonist, Brian, in the cockpit of a small plane with the pilot. The friendly pilot teaches Brian to, you know, the bare minimum about flying the plane, but the boy’s thoughts are consumed by the pain of his parents’ divorce, which is the reason he is taking this journey. While the inner conflict is raging on, the pilot suffers a heart attack, leaving Brian alone at the controls.
In The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, the story opens in a gymnasium where women sleep on cots overseen by older women armed with cattle prods. The fear of punishment is palpable, though the main character nurses a stubborn resistance. The conflict is implied but the reader understands that the younger women are hostages.
The main conflict of each story is hinted at in the first chapter. Remember, the global conflict of Hatchet is Character vs. Nature. The reader gets a real sense of the endless wilderness beneath the plane during the scene. The main character’s feelings of helplessness and emotional isolation are also made clear.
The global conflict in The Handmaid’s Tale is Character vs. Society, and the first chapter, though it never spells anything out, lets the reader know the women don’t want to be in the gymnasium, but somehow, society approves of their plight.
The first chapter is like a set up in volleyball, preparing the plot to be driven home by the remainder of the story. As we discussed in Episode 18, the stakes are hinted at too. We can guess that physical death is on the line for the boy, Brian, if the pilot dies while the plane is still in the air. We can also guess the women are at risk of emotional death and possibly physical death.
We started with this statement: Every scene must include conflict. Conflict demands a choice, and every choice results in consequences.
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So, how does choice fit in?
At times, it seems as though your character hasn’t made a choice during a scene, but remember, even no response equals making a choice.
If someone deeply insults your character and she doesn’t respond in any way, then her inaction is a choice. Also, her choice not to act will have consequences, immediately or later. Her lack of response might embolden her persecutor or result in the persecutor losing interest. Either way, we can bet your character will be scarred by the experience.
Poor choices often push your character down the road toward disaster, which is exactly what you want, right? Don’t make your character too stupid to live, but they must make mistakes or make the best choices they can based on imperfect information. Either way, hardship and disaster need to happen.
Consequences must follow choices. Consequences may be delayed until another scene, but make sure they happen. These three Cs–conflict, choice, and consequence–are the fuel in your storytelling engine.
I find it helps to keep a spreadsheet of each scene and identify the conflict, choices, and consequences. Whichever way you do it, keep your story moving with adequate fuel.
In the first chapter of Hatchet, Brian’s first instinct is to panic. His choices about the ongoing emergency are deferred to the second chapter, as are the consequences. In the first chapter of The Handmaid’s Tale, the women have chosen to rebel in their own way, by learning the names within the group against all the strictures of silence and separation. The consequences of this small rebellion are deferred to future chapters.
What is an inciting event?
In every good book, an inciting event pushes the main character out of their normal life and into the main conflict of the book. The inciting event frequently happens in the first chapter but not always. As we discussed in Episode 18, it is important to show the normal world, however briefly, for context.
The placement of the inciting event is up to you. However, don’t make your reader wait too long. If you reach page 50 with no inciting event, it’s a safe bet you need to rethink the beginning of your story.
Let’s look at a couple of examples to clarify the meaning of inciting event.
The inciting event in The Hunger Games comes when Prim’s name is called. At that moment, everything normal about Katniss’s life goes up in smoke. Not every inciting event is so monumental and immediate.
In Star Wars: Episode IV A New Hope, the inciting event happens when Luke’s uncle buys the droids from the sand people. It doesn’t seem like much, but the droids’ arrival changes the rest of Luke’s life. If they had not bought R2-D2 and C-3PO, Luke would not have seen Leia’s recorded message and none of the rest of the story would have happened. (Lucas 1976)
Your character’s life goes from normal to not normal based on a plot point you invent. That event needs to seem organic, reasonable, and believable for the best reader experience.
A Note about Prologues
I feel like I need to address a related topic to first chapters, prologues.
Prologues have a long history in literature, but they continue to be a source of contention among critics. A prologue is a separate introductory section with an event or action that naturally leads to the action of the book. Some agents basically will not consider a manuscript with a prologue, and some know better than that.
Whatever you choose to do, a prologue must be as riveting as any first chapter. Many readers confess to skipping prologues because they have a reputation for being dull and uninteresting. So, proceed at your own risk.
I would counsel authors to avoid using a letter or a “historical” document as a prologue because the reader, who wants to get into the story, will be tempted to turn to Chapter One. Instead, figure out a way to drip in the historical context as you would any other important information without resorting to an information dump.
If your agent hates prologues, then make your prologue the first chapter. Do not get wrapped around the axle over a prologue; having a prologue is not a hill to die on, you know?
Many crime thrillers portray the villain and the crime in the first chapter and leave the main character’s introduction for the second chapter. This is exactly what happens in Hillerman’s Dance Hall of the Dead, as we discussed in the previous episodes of this series.
If you have a prologue, it must be necessary.
Give your prologue a hook, establish setting, include conflict, characterize someone, and end it with a cliffhanger. Yup. Give a prologue as much attention as you give your first chapter. The only thing worse than a reader putting your book down in the first chapter is having a reader put your book down before the first chapter begins.
This leads us to the last essential ingredient, the not-so-secret sauce of a successful first chapter—the bonus C I promised—the cliffhanger ending. You managed to hook your readers and keep them reading to the end of the chapter. The only job left is to make them turn to the next chapter. And the next. You need a cliffhanger.
Your character doesn’t have to be in peril, but you must leave your reader dying to know the answers to unanswered questions at the end of every scene and chapter. Couple a cliffhanger with a hook at the beginning of the following scene or chapter, and you have an unbeatable combination.
Returning to the first chapter of The Hunger Games, we see this ending:
“The crowd draws in a collective breath and then you can hear a pin drop, and I’m feeling nauseous and so desperately hoping that it’s not me, that it’s not me, that it’s not me.
“Effie Trinket crosses [back] to the podium, smooths the slip of paper, and reads out the name in a clear voice. And it’s not me.
“It’s Primrose Everdeen.” (Collins 2008, 28)
Now, we must turn the page to find out what happens next!
The reader needs to have unanswered questions and feel connected to the main character by the end of the first chapter. Your job is to get them to turn that page.
Watch dramas on television and take special note of how they end their scenes. Screenwriters know they need to get the viewers back after the commercial breaks. Mimic this technique in your writing. Think of each scene ending as a commercial break; do everything you can to make the reader come back for the next scene.
Finally, avoid ending a scene with the character going to sleep. This is the perfect excuse for the reader to put your book down. Never make it easy for the reader to walk away.