[originally published 11/2014; updated 5/2021]
Starting a new project is often the most exciting stage. As creative writers, we get to put our imaginations to work dreaming up witty and fun characters, fantastic settings, conflicts that would destroy anyone but our stalwart protagonist, and plot twists that readers never see coming.
We get it all planned and then sit down in front of our computer to begin writing.
And the cursor flashes…waiting…for that first scene to come flying out of your fingers and onto the page. But nothing comes. Where do you start? What is the first scene? What should you include in it?
Writing that first scene can still stop me. So, I decided to dive in and do a little research to figure out how to most effectively start my stories and write chapter one, possibly the most important chapter when it comes to drawing your readers in.
Like most of my strategies, I came up with these elements by reading like a writer and breaking down what some of my favorite authors were doing in their first pages. From studying our favorite books, we can figure out how to write chapter 1 in our own novels.
Your story’s first page or first scene must include the following four C’s and Q:
Character, Context, Care, Conflict, and Question
Here are the elements that you need to include when writing chapter 1. I break down with examples a bit further on.
1) Character – First, you must introduce basic information about your protagonist including their gender, age, name, core elements of their personality, and possibly even what they look like. We don’t need this in the first line or even on the first page, but we do have to know something about the novel’s protagonist.
2) Context – This refers to the setting and a bit about what’s happening in the story. We need to know where our characters actually are, both the location and time, and the other characters with whom they’re interacting. We also need to know a little bit about what’s going on in their lives.
Lack of context is one of the reasons starting a story with dialogue is difficult. Readers don’t know who these people are or what they’re talking about. There’s no context.
3) Care – We need to make our readers care about our characters immediately. You can do this through sharing a bit of their personality, their dilemma or conflict, a strong voice, or even through humor.
4) Conflict – What, exactly, is the character’s problem here? This needs to be introduced right away. In all three stories that I analyze below, the major overall story worthy problem is right there on page one.
5) A Question – you must end the first page or the first scene so that your reader is asking themselves…something. If they’re not asking themselves a question about your characters, your conflict, or setting, they probably won’t care enough about what happens to turn the page. And that’s the goal, right? To get your readers to read the next page, so get them asking questions and wanting more.
Let’s break this down and see how it works in some young adult novels and one of my favorite classic novels.
Divergent by Veronica Roth
Miss Roth does an amazing job of including all of these elements in the very first scene of Divergent, and it’s a short scene of only around 450 words (yes, I counted – that’s the nerd in me peeking out).
Character – Right away we know the main character is a sixteen year old girl. She’s got dull blond hair, and she’s curious because she wants to see what she looks like. She both loves and admires her mother which also tells us something about her. She values her family.
Context – We learn that the character lives in a different world than our contemporary society. She isn’t allowed to look in the house’s lone mirror and must reject all behaviors that might be considered self-indulgent. She only gets a haircut every three months. She has a father and a brother, and she loves them. Today is the day she will take a test to figure out where she should spend the rest of her life…a big day.
Care – We keep turning the pages because this is a girl who loves her family and feels guilty for wanting to leave them. Many teenagers from all different types of families have felt this way. We completely relate to this character’s dilemma.
Conflict – Roth states the conflict clearly and it’s why we care about the character. She loves her family, but she also wants to leave them.
Question – Roth sets up numerous questions in this scene. What is a faction? What can’t she look in a mirror? Why does she get a haircut on the second day of every third month? Why can’t she celebrate her birthday? What is the aptitude test? Which faction will she choose? Will she leave her family? Will she be okay if she does leave them? While we have many questions, the story worthy question is the last one, will Tris make it if she switches factions?
All of these questions, keep us turning the pages, but she’s given us enough information in the four C’s so we are curious, not confused.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Character – Mrs. Bennet and Mr. Bennet make their appearance on page one while their five daughters appear on page two. Mr. Bennet is quite witty and sarcastic. Mrs. Bennet struggles to grasp what her husband is saying, and she gets quite distraught. She’s not a brilliant woman by any stretch of the imagination.
Context – A new single gentleman, Mr. Bingley, is moving into the neighborhood. None of the Bennet’s daughters are married and Mrs. Bennet sees this as the perfect opportunity to marry one of them off, especially her favorite, Lizzy.
Care – Surprisingly in a classic novel, Austen uses humor to make us care. Mr. Bennet is hilarious and Mrs. Bennet is too daft to figure out his humor. It’s funny, and this makes us care about these characters right away. We also connect with Mrs. Bennet because she wants the best for her daughters.
Conflict – Mrs. Bennet wants Mr. Bennet to call on the wealthy Mr. Bingley, so she can call on him later. Mr. Bennet refuses. Her entire goal in life is to marry off her daughters, but it is clearly not his.
Question – The story-worthy question is asked in the classic first line of this novel: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” We then must ask, is this true? Does every well off man, actually want to get married? By the end of the scene, we are also asking will Mrs. Bennet succeed? Will one of her daughters marry the much-admired Mr. Bingley? Must they marry wealthy men? Will Mr. Bennet participate at all in the search for suitable husbands? And finally, why is it so important that they get married in the first place?
Someone Like You by Sarah Dessen
Character – In this story, we have a female teen named Halley, and her stalwart best friend, Scarlett Thomas. Scarlett is the strong one in their relationship, but her boyfriend, Michael Sherwood, has just died.
Context – Halley has been having “the worst week” of her life at a summer camp, isolated from all of her friends. It’s late at night. She’s not supposed to be getting phone calls, but she got an emergency call from Scarlett.
Care – We care immediately because somebody has died and Scarlett now needs her friend, Halley. Halley is a loyal and devoted friend, and she’s leaving camp to prove it. We already like Halley who’s stepping up when her friend needs her.
Conflict – The initial conflict is that Scarlett loved Michael who’s died, and Halley is off at camp, right when her best friend needs her most.
Question – Is Scarlett going to be okay? Will Halley be able to leave camp? Will she be able to be strong enough for Scarlett?