As part of the series on how to write a strong first chapter, we consider the setting of the story, the normal world, the types of stakes in a story, and the genre expectations.
Today, we are continuing the series here on Writing Pursuits about Your Novel’s First Chapter. We will consider the need to establish setting, show the main character’s normal world, reveal the stakes, and meet genre expectations. How can you accomplish all of this in the first chapter? This question and more on Episode 18 of Writing Pursuits.
Welcome to the Writing Pursuits podcast, where authors like you discuss writing craft, author, life, and book marketing strategies. I'm your host, Kathrese McKee. I own Writing Pursuits, and write and produce the weekly newsletter, Writing Pursuits Tips for Authors. In addition, I am a speculative fiction author.
Writing Pursuits is for authors who drink too much coffee, endure judgmental looks from their furry writing companions, and struggle for words. If you are a writer seeking encouragement, information, and inspiration, this podcast is for you. Let's get to it.
Hey, Writing Pursuits Authors. Welcome back to the podcast. To those of you who are new, I want to extend a special welcome. My name is Kathrese McKee, and I'm glad you're here. Please leave a comment, a star rating, and follow the show to help others find Writing Pursuits.
A few weeks ago, we discussed the importance of the first chapter and the many moving parts of a killer first chapter. In Episode 16, we talked about the hook. In Episode 17, we talked about point of view. Today, we are going to touch on setting, genre expectations, the normal world, and stakes. Don’t worry. You don’t have to fully develop any of these aspects in the first chapter, but you must touch on each one.
Let’s start with setting.
Setting encompasses both time and place. This should not come at the expense of bonding the reader to the character. Older books, written before movies, television, and the impromptu videos on social media, started more slowly and often lavished pages on the story’s setting.
For this generation of readers, it is best to drip in the details of setting a few at a time. They expect a shorthand approach because they are impatient to get into the story. Make no mistake; your book is in direct competition with video and social media.
However, don’t leave your reader floating around in a vacuum, trying to make sense of the story without context. Ground each scene in the setting. Provide a sturdy setting for your scene so the reader can concentrate on the action and the characters without flailing about in a white bubble without floors, ceilings, or walls.
Your opening scene in the first chapter should open in a space that is representative of the main character. If your MC is an astronaut, maybe begin in a flight simulator. If your main character is a forest animal, maybe their story begins near their den. If the MC is a corporate tycoon, make the story open in her corner office. A 1920s gangster could begin in the streets of Chicago.
As soon as possible, anchor the scene in the time of day. This might be a great time in a military thriller to indicate the time as 14:30.
In a space odyssey, you could indicate the time of “day” as the second twenty hours of Lunavogara’s solar cycle, when darkness reigns but the mines never sleep.
Even in contemporary earth fiction, be considerate and let the reader know it is half past heartbreak on Valentine’s Day, when supper is ready but you’re eating alone.
Place and time. Not pages and pages of description. Setting can be communicated through clothing, technology, customs, vivid details, and sensory data. Does your character hear the hum of the submarine engines? Are they assaulted by the nasty, greasy odors from the dumpsters in the alley? Are their lips coated with salt from their sweat?
Setting is the beginning of world building, especially in fantasy and science fiction. Think of the era and the backdrop too. Is this a period of war or peace? Authoritarian rule, theocracy, or democracy? 1920s Chicago or 3520s Mars? Is the milieu upper crust, middle class, or lower caste?
In your first chapter, the reader doesn’t need to know all the main character’s backstory or the seven historical epochs of the Purple Dynasty. They need context for the characters’ actions and emotions.
The next piece of the first chapter is showing the character’s normal world, often referred to as the ordinary world. This is not the same as setting but more about the character’s arc.
What does their normal, ordinary life look like? Think of this as a snapshot from before, like the before shot of a makeover. And the before shot needs to show how they see themselves and possibly, how others perceive them.
You want to show your character in action and amid conflict, but you also need to let your readers know what “normal” looks like for your character.
It would simply be too abrupt to start your story about the Apollo 13 space mission with “Houston, we’ve had a problem here.” (By the way, that’s the actual quote from the Apollo 13 space mission.) The normal world for the astronauts is during the Cold War in a dangerous race to space with the USSR. The men assigned to Apollo 13 were military pilots who had to master many skills essential to survival in space, and the weight of the world rested on their shoulders.
The reader needs to make an emotional connection to the crew before they get on the flight—before the system malfunctions. Otherwise, they don’t have a grasp of setting. To form that critical, emotional connection, you need to let your reader see your POV character’s normal world first.
You also must let the reader know what’s at stake.
In The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen’s normal world boils down to a miner’s shack where she ekes out a hand-to-mouth existence with her mother and sister. The stakes are physical survival; she must poach in forbidden territory to feed her household. An underground marketplace exists in their district where people trade each goods for what they need. She sees herself as the provider. That is her normal world before she is literally thrust on stage by the authoritarian government. Her normal life is grim, and it’s about to get a whole lot worse.
Our last two topics of today are genre and stakes. More about that in a minute, but now, a word from our sponsor …
Writing Pursuits is run by Kathrese McKee who has been trusted by fiction authors since 2014 to take their writing to a new level of excellence. Kathrese is a Three Story Method Certified Editor who specializes in story diagnostics, coaching, and line editing to help you “prepare your story for the journey ahead.” For more information, go to WritingPursuits.com. The link is in the show notes.
And now, back to the podcast.
So far, we have considered how to establish the story’s setting and show the character’s normal world.
Now, we want to cover meeting genre expectations and communicating the initial stakes.
You absolutely must establish your genre in the first chapter through every avenue available. Use setting, names, details, dress, technology, and dialogue to communicate genre to your reader. You don’t want your reader to think she’s reading a cozy mystery only to discover the elf on page six.
This means you need to know and understand the expectations readers have for your chosen genre.
Rules can be broken, but if you choose to break the mold, make sure your choice will delight the readers or prepare to wear your flak jacket to survive the bad reviews.
Just in case, I am going to name several big genres for anyone who is new to writing fiction. These are the big headings, and underneath each one, there are sub-genres of various flavors.
There’s literary fiction which is character driven, realistic, and reflects on the human condition; it means many things to many people. If you decide to go this route, make sure you know and love literary fiction. In my opinion, literary fiction is a genre like all the rest with its own set of expectations. Moving on.
Genre fiction tends to be more plot driven, encompasses: fantasy, adventure, romance, contemporary, dystopian, mystery, horror, thriller, paranormal, historical fiction, science fiction, and children’s fiction. Some lists set apart Westerns too. In the marketplace, you will see distinctions made according to the intended audience like women’s fiction or young adult fiction or new adult fiction. At any rate, each of these genres and their subgenres come with a set of expectations.
For instance, it’s nearly impossible to end a romance novel with the love interests going their separate ways. If there’s one immutable law of writing romance, it is: the main characters must live happily ever after with one another. Usually, the characters meet very early in the story; some publishers insist this meeting must happen within the first five pages. It pays to know expectations if you want to sell your manuscript to a publisher.
Science fiction and fantasy share some expectations: a well-developed setting that stretches into world building; a diverse cast of complex characters; a large-scale conflict; and an obvious power structure or system of government. Fantasy diverges from science fiction because it usually incorporates a system of magic. Religion, too, often figures large in fantasy as well.
Obviously, a mystery needs a crime and a sleuth or a team of investigators. Mysteries require clues and foreshadowing and red herrings. Above all, they require a satisfying ending that holds some sort of surprise element for the reader.
To meet expectations for your genre, you absolutely need to know the tropes and expectations. The best way to gather that information is to read extensively in your genre.
The first chapter must let the reader know at least one thing that is at stake. That doesn’t mean there can’t be more things at stake, and you can always raise the stakes later.
A stake always, always means death is on the line. Give me a moment. I don’t mean only physical death.
Death can mean emotional death, like when someone you love dies. Or spiritual death, as in damnation or excommunication. Or social death, the loss of face and social standing as when someone becomes a pariah. Political death seems pretty self-explanatory, but maybe a politician knows they will never get re-elected if such-and-such story comes out. And of course, death can mean physical death. These are all valid stakes, and they can be combined. Yay!
The way to establish the stakes is to make it clear what your character cares about and then threaten them with loss. Or make your character lose what they hold dear so they can be transformed.
Even better, pair high stakes with a time fuse. The professor must discover the antidote before his wife dies from a deadly poison. The schooner must escape the harbor before the blockade seals it off. And so on. This doesn’t have to happen in the first chapter, but you need to set the stage by communicating the protagonist’s goals and motivations.
Setting, the normal world, genre, and stakes are important pieces of a successful first chapter. I hope you have a better idea of how this affects your story. If you have any questions or comments on this topic, please leave them in the comments for Episode 18 at WritingPursuits.com/podcast.
Thank you for joining me today. If you have questions about writing or need a story diagnostic, please go to WritingPursuits.com. That’s all I have for today. Until next time ...
Thank you for joining us today. If you enjoyed this episode, please leave a comment and follow the podcast. If you're new around here, I hope you will sign up for the weekly newsletter, Writing Pursuits Tips for Authors. That link and all the links mentioned in today's episode are in the show notes at WritingPursuits.com. Please join us on Wednesdays for new episodes and keep writing, my friends. Keep writing.
Thank you for joining us today. If you enjoyed this episode, please leave a comment and follow the podcast. You are invited to join the Writing Pursuits Author Community for more content and to receive Word Marker Tips for Authors. That link and all the links mentioned in today's episode are in the show notes at WritingPursuits.com.
Please join us on Wednesdays for new episodes, and keep writing, my friends. Keep writing!