An ideal first chapter tells the reader only what’s necessary. After all you can’t finish a story in a chapter can’t you? (Well you can with short stories… but that’s another story.) You must tell the reader the main parts, not the subsidiary parts. The things which are important must be in the front in the opening chapter. Very visible. The subsidiary parts should have the backseat.
Now, you may ask, “what the heck are the main and subsidiary parts? Didn’t we learn all things are important as architecture for a novel?”
Yes, we did learn it. But there are some things called subplots. These things are important – they add depth and reality to a story – but for that reason, they must be given secondary importance. Plots come first, subplots come second. All the loose ends come third.
Which leads to the question… “so what exactly are the main parts? What exactly should be told and shown in the opening chapter?”
The main parts are:
1) The main character
A good story is, according to my opinion, mostly character-driven, with a superb plot added. That is why you must make the character as interesting as possible. Hollow characters? No. Clichéd characters? Again a big no-no. Same goes for two-dimensional characters and characters who are perfect in every way.
There is no limit to how many characters you can have in a story… but as always, fewer are better. Too many characters can slow down your plot and have the reader stop caring about them. Three or four human characters can do the trick… and notice I said the word ‘human.’ That’s not to say you can’t have robots or animals, it’s just that everyone must have some human quality at least.
And therefore… you must make a great main character. A character that the readers will care about. To do that, experiment with mixing the qualities of any character you’ve read about and liked. If one mixes with some common sense and a healthy hope to try to be unique, chances are, you may actually make a unique character in the process. If you have one…
Show him/her to the readers. Make the readers that this going to be the main character they’ll read about. Show why that particular character is so great. Keep doing that in a clear, compelling manner.
Notice how I keep writing “show” instead of “tell.” We all know the old rule: “Show, don’t tell.” It applies even today. The reader doesn’t care that “She was feeling very sad,” but he/she does care when you say “Hot and blinding tears rolled down her cheeks.” That’s showing, not telling. I know it’s a hard rule to follow. But as with anything, practice makes perfect.
Conclusion: – In the opening chapter, you must tell the reader several important things about the main character, but only the ones they’ll care about. I’ll elaborate in another post. Show him why he/she is interesting and great to read, and the reader’s interest will be hooked.
2) The main plot
Consider this scenario: you have a cast of great characters. You’ve got one who has now become a shell of a man, due to deep reasons. You’ve got one who is ambitious and daring but has one main fear. You’ve got another one who is hated by everyone else, but has something unique.
OK fine. Great.
But – now what?
Characters alone don’t make a story. They’re just some of the main ingredients. And all ingredients are necessary, as core competencies. And one of them is… the main plot.
The plot is the one thing that creates conflict. That makes the characters struggle. That makes them flawed, and then show their flaw to everyone. That makes them determined and above all, a human. It’s one thing, and it’s called the plot.
It’s extremely difficult to do. Impossible? Well no. But practice is necessary. Otherwise – you’ve got great characters, but no plot. No proper architecture. No foundation. Your story, like a badly-made house, will fall upon its pillars. It won’t work.
And that’s why… you’ve got to have a great plot.
Oh, and I think you already know that. I can’t teach you how to make one, though.
But I can teach you that you’ve got to show it to the reader in a compelling manner. One which makes the reader actually read.
To do that – show only what the character has to struggle to do. Show only which is hard. Like mountain-climbing (it can be a character’s secret dream to do). Never show something which is easy and has the reader say, “Hey, even I can do that.”
Conclusion: – Show the best conflicting parts of the plot in the opening chapter. Show only which is near impossible. And show only which your character can’t do.
3) The theme of your story
The theme is what distinguishes the bestsellers from any other books. I’ll use an example of Inkheart by Cornelia Funke. I found it a great read. Why? The characters were good, the plot was good as well. But what actually did distinguish it?
I mean, reading aloud produces characters… readers were like “wow!”
And your novel must be the same.
Things you already have: A great theme. It’s there, in your mind.
Things which you can do: Perfect it.
… and that’s all for today.