Building a Great First Chapter with NYT Bestselling Author Beth Revis

Hi everyone! Today we’re handing the blog over to NYT bestselling author Beth Revis (did you read her Across The Universe trilogy? I did and loved it!). Beth has taken all her hard-won writing knowledge and packed into a new guide book for writers called Paper Hearts, the first in a series on Writing, Publishing and Marketing.

Beth is sharing a bit of her book with us, looking specifically at what ingredients go into a strong first chapter, so please read on. Plus, there’s a giveaway at the bottom of this post.

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The two most important chapters of a novel for most readers are the first chapter and the last chapter. The first chapter hooks the reader; the last chapter hooks the reader for your next book.

When writing your first chapter, there are a few specific things you probably need:

EMPATHETIC CHARACTERS

Empathy doesn’t mean that you feel bad or good for a character; it means that you understand what the character is feeling and why. In Across the Universe, my main character, Amy, watches her parents undergo a painful medical procedure in the first chapter. This is something that anyone can empathize with – we know how we would feel if our own parents or loved ones underwent a painful procedure. This immediately puts us in the picture with the main character. Possibly the most important thing you can do as a writer is create empathetic characters. Think of Katniss and her love for Prim in The Hunger Games – that was chapter 1. Think of Bella meeting Edward in Twilight or Harry Potter becoming an orphan. These are things with which we can empathize.

SYMPATHETIC SITUATION

While your characters need to be empathetic, it’s good to start the story with a sympathetic situation. You have a character who you can almost visualize as yourself – you understand where they’re coming from and who and why they are. Now put them in a situation we wouldn’t want to be in. Make us feel bad that these characters we identify with are in a bad situation.

While you make the character sympathetic with the situation she’s in, beware of going too far, or having her react in an unsympathetic way. We empathize with Katniss because she loves her sister, we sympathize with her because she’s in a horrible situation with the presence of the Games, and we love her because of her survival attitude. Had she been whiney or mean, cruel or abusive, all that empathy and sympathy would disappear. Katniss would have every right to whine and wallow in self pity in this situation—most of us would do just that—but because she doesn’t, we respect her and grow to love her character.

IT IS WHAT IT SAYS IT IS ON THE COVER

You should also definitely give some hint of what the book is. You’re giving readers a taste of the whole book in the first chapter. If it’s a sci fi novel, you need a spaceship or cryogenic freezing in chapter one. If it’s a survival story like The Hunger Games, have Katniss shoot her bow. Harry mentions magic. Elizabeth Bennet’s mother in Pride and Prejudice mentions marriage. Whatever your story is overall, there must be a hint of it here, in the first pages. I should know what genre you’re writing not from your cover or your back jacket description, but from your first chapter.

IMMEDIATE CONFLICT TO FORESHADOW FUTURE CONFLICT

Writers are often told to start their novels with a bang – but that can often lead to overly dramatic (and melodramatic) first chapters. Instead, try to mirror a larger conflict within the first chapter with something smaller. In my novel, Amy watching her parents being cryogenically frozen mirrors how later, when she wakes up, she has to make tough decisions without them. For The Hunger Games, Katniss’s hunt in the first chapter mirrors the battle for survival that the whole book revolves around. For Lucy Pevensie in The Chronicles of Narnia it’s the way her brother Edmund treats her. In the first Harry Potter book, Harry’s problems with Dudley echo his problems with Draco later.

Your action needs to be buildable—it should constantly be escalating—so keep what’s happening in Chapter 1 both relatable and prescient.

Interested in finding out more about the Paper Hearts Series?

Your enemy is the blank page. When it comes to writing, there’s no wrong way to get words on paper. But it’s not always easy to make the ink flow. Paper Hearts: Some Writing Advice won’t make writing any simpler, but it may help spark your imagination and get your hands back on the keyboard.

Practical Advice Meets Real Experience

 With information that takes you from common mistakes in grammar to detailed charts on story structure, Paper Hearts describes:

  •  How to Develop Character, Plot, and World
  • What Common Advice You Should Ignore
  • What Advice Actually Helps
  • How to Develop a Novel
  • The Basics of Grammar, Style, and Tone
  • Four Practical Methods of Charting Story Structure
  • How to Get Critiques and Revise Your Novel
  • How to Deal with Failure
  • And much more!

Preorder it now from: Independent Bookstore ~ Amazon ~ BN ~  Kobo ~ Smashwords

Beth Revis is the New York Times bestselling author of the Across the Universe trilogy, as well as The Body Electric, Paper Hearts, and the forthcoming A World Without You. She lives in the Appalachian mountains with her boys: one husband, one son, and two very large dogs.

You can find out more on Facebook, Twitter, or online. If you never want to miss a thing and also get exclusive insider opportunities, sign up for her newsletter here.  Also feel free to add Paper Hearts to your Goodreads list, and if you like, enter Beth’s Rafflecopter giveaway for a signed copy, some swag and other extras!

What gives you the biggest trouble when it comes to the first chapter? Let Beth know in the comments!  

About ANGELA ACKERMAN

Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, an online library packed with powerful tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.
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20 Responses to Building a Great First Chapter with NYT Bestselling Author Beth Revis

  1. Leslie Rose says:

    Love this post. And I don’t think I took a breath during the first chapter of Across the Universe it was so amazing.

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  4. Karen says:

    Great example of the difference between empathy and sympathy. I always get the two confused.

  5. It’s so hard to get that first chapter right. Thanks for the tips, Beth!

  6. A post to save. thanks!

  7. Linda Mitchell says:

    The hardest part of chapter 1 for me is not to include the back story I need as an author….but just the part that the reader needs to want to continue! I tend to want to write the whole story first and then turn it into more. Waaaaah!

    • You aren’t alone! This is something I see very often in first page critiques. When I’m editing my own first chapters, I use a highlighter to mark all of the telling spots (this is how I find the dreaded backstory info dumps). Then I figure out how to show these bits instead of telling them. Sometimes this means rewriting. Sometimes it means moving the section to a later part of the story and rewriting it there. Sometimes it means cutting. It’s hard, but SO worth it in the end!

    • Beth says:

      I am the SAME WAY. I try to make myself forget about these worries when I write the first draft, and then edit down as much as humanly possible in revisions.

  8. Good to know!! I’ll check this book out for more tips.

  9. Thanks so much for visiting us, Beth–first chapters have so much pressure attached to them, don’t they? It’s good to have some unique tips on how to really make them stand out and hook the reader. 🙂

  10. Southpaw HR Sinclair says:

    Really great tips. The mirroring events is a good one.

  11. Southpaw HR Sinclair says:

    Really great tips. The mirroring events is a good one.

  12. Bish Denham says:

    I think this is a book I should get! I’ve followed Beth from her earlier days when she was just starting to write her novels, have read them all. Her journey and what she’s learned would be a well-spring of information, I’m sure!

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