Why is that first Chapter so hard to write?

Posted: November 22, 2010 in Writing
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After fighting my POV monster, I must admit that my manuscript is looking so much better!  I’m still going through and chopping, rewriting, and reordering scenes and chapters and all of them are going pretty smooth.  But this wasn’t so bad, at least not as bad as writing the first chapter.

Why is that first chapter so freakin hard?  You would think the middle would be an issue, due to the fact that it’s where your climax dwells.  The end I thought would be hassle only because if my book ended on a sour note, it would make reading everything before it a waste of time.  But no, the first chapter has been the bane of my existence ever since I started this novel two years ago.  At this point, I could probably make a novel out of my chapter 1 rewrites! 

After thinking about this for a little bit, I have come up with a reason why the first chapter can seem like the hardest:  It’s called:

Chapter 1 Pressure

What is this pressure exactly?  It’s the pressure to hook your reader in the first three pages.  It’s the pressure to introduce your main character, your setting, and the conflict, while making your reader actually care about your story.  It’s the pressure of not dumping back story but give your reader just enough information to keep them reading.  As a fantasy writer, it’s the pressure of not boring my reader with tons of details about my new world but letting them know that this story doesn’t take place on planet Earth BUT not confuse the mess out of them either!  First impressions are often lasting impressions and this is my first novel.  If the first chapter totally sucks, the rest of it doesn’t even matter.

So how do you get over this Chapter 1 Pressure?

Well after you have a glass of wine (or mixed drink of you prefer), just write the damn thing.  Write it knowing that it will probably stink the first go around and it will take you a few tries to get it right (and you still may not like it!).  You have to get over that hump and take your novel to the end of the line, i.e the end.  When I finished my first draft and saw where my story ended up, it made rewriting the first chapter a lot less painful.  That’s because:

I knew where my destination was.  I knew where my main character Damaris would end up plot wise as well as in her emotional development.  As for plot, I have already written the climax and resolution of the plot of this book by finishing it.  Now I can go back and make sure the first chapter doesn’t start too far away from the climax.  That alone helped me eliminate a ton of back story.  When it comes to my main character, Damaris is on the verge of being a total bad ass at the end of this book, so I have to make sure she’s the naïve and sweet little girl in the first chapter. 

I know more about my world now. In the beginning, you can do all of your world building to a T, but I learned firsthand that during the course of writing the story, certain things have changed.  I also took opportunities to introduce new things about my world Epsilon through other chapters, scenes, and character exchanges.  Therefore, I had a better grasp of how much the setting I need to explain without a massive info dump – which is a chapter 1 no-no.

Have any of you writers had this much trouble with your first chapters?  I would love to hear how you dealt with it!

  1. Ann Marie says:

    I had that problem when i was reading the first Harry Potter book, “Harry Potter & The Sorcerer’s Stone”. I tried reading it and the first chapter was so boring, I didn’t want to read it anymore.
    And when I was editing my story, which got deleted, I was changing the first chapter every time I opened it to look at it. It was the most annoying thing ever! I was never satisfied!

  2. M. McGriff says:

    I’m going through that too! The first chapter I have now is a BIG improvement from the very first one I wrote, but it is a process!

  3. I agree with Ann Marie; I never finished the first Harry Potter book for the same reason… But I digress… I also agree with everything you’ve said in this post … you are spot-on about why the first chapter is so difficult. Pressure. Plain and simple. And I just recently went through that myself, as I’m, today, only on C 4 of my second novel. But, in the end, you’re right. You need to just write the first chapter, knowing that it may change (or maybe it won’t, in any dramatic sense). I will be interested to see what feedback I get … when I get there.

    The great part about writing, vs. living in real time, is that we have the benefit of hindsight after we’ve written THE END. As you say, you can now go back and finesse – adding all those subtle hints, changing the details that inevitably did change. Too bad we can’t have those do-overs in real life!

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