Today, we continue the four-part series about Your 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?
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, do not 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, maybe the story would begin in her corner office. A 1920s gangster’s story could begin on the streets of Chicago.
Anchor your scene in the time of day.
As soon as possible, anchor your 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 reigned but the mines never slept. 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 which senses are most involved.
Does your character hear the hum of the submarine engines? Are they assaulted by the nasty grease 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 does not need to know all of 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 facet 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.
What does your character’s normal life look like?
You want to show your character in action or 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.” (That’s the actual quote by Jack Swigert 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 are military pilots who must master many skills essential to survival in space, and the weight of the world rests on their shoulders.
The reader would have no emotional connection to Jack Swigert, James Lovell, or Fred Haise, the astronauts aboard the flight, if we started their story when the system malfunctioned. Nor would the reader 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 other 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.
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Don’t leave things to chance. This guide will take you from the opening hook to the can’t-put-it-down cliffhanger; you will learn how to choose the best point of view, set the scene, show the normal world, and engage your readers.
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.
Know and understand reader expectations.
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 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: women, young and new adults, children. 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 that 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 often figures large in fantasy as well.
Obviously, a mystery needs a crime and a sleuth or 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 the death of or separation from a loved one.
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 these affect your story.