“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” (Gen 1:1)
While this may not be the most stirring of beginnings, this one sentence is a great example of what the first few pages of any novel should include. Let’s break it down:
“In the beginning…”
Okay, so the beginning should set the time period. We should be able to tell the basics of the era, what time in the MC’s life we’re starting, and depending on the importance—time of year, time of day. Now, obviously you don’t want to come out and TELL US, like this line does, but you want to intersperse clues throughout the first few pages.
Introduce the main character. The Bible is all about God. From the beginning through Revelations…it’s all about God. So it is suitable that the first chapter we learn who this character is. Same goes for our stories. Now, as with all guidelines, there are exceptions. Some stories start with the villain. Some stories start with prologues that have characters we may never see again in the story. For the most part, though, your first chapter should introduce your main character in a way that will make us care about them. Readers won’t be persuaded to keep reading if they don’t care what happens to the main character.
“…created the heavens and the earth.”
Here’s a way to start a story with a bang. Our goal in the first few pages, paragraphs even, is to hook the reader. We have to introduce some action or conflict, a peek at the plot.
“Created” is a unique verb, one of my favorites. Created, by definition, means to make something from your own mind/vision. God saw the heavens and earth and spoke them into being. He saw all of this, and made it happen. And it was no small feat…He didn’t paint a masterpiece, record a #1 hit, write a novel…no, God created the HEAVENS AND THE EARTH (said in a deep, rumbling voice that echoes off the walls).
These words also tell us about the main character. God is ambitious, He can see the big picture, He is creative, He can make something out of nothing, He is bigger than a mere human, and much more.
So, God created the heavens and the earth…now what?
That’s the question that keeps the reader interested. We have a strong character, bigger than life (in this case), who has done something that is beyond possibility for us, what’s He going to do from here?
In Dividing Spirits, my main character Ninevah is a loan officer at a bank in Kansas City, MO. In the first chapter, the bank is robbed, her friend is murdered, and Ninevah is knocked unconscious—and that chapter is only about three thousand words. Through all of this, the reader learns a little (very, very little) about Ninevah’s background through dialogue, and they get a good glimpse into her personality. She’s a strong Christian woman who keeps her cool in tough situations, but wears her emotions on her sleeves when it comes to those she loves.
What about you? What important elements make your first chapter pop?