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Six Tips for Chapter One Success

How do you make sure people–readers, agents, editors–keep reading Chapter One of your Great American Novel? How do we get them to Chapter Two?

After publishing three works of fiction and after writing (and discarding) several novels, I’ve figured out how to crack the code of success in the first chapter. I love Save the Cat and the Story Engines methods, so I use a hybrid of these two formulas plus some other wisdom out there to make sure these six things happen in Chapter One.

  1. DESIRE. Read through your chapter and mark in red any evidence of a character wanting something badly. What drives the person? What’s the mission here?
  2. SOMETHING WRONG. The Save the Cat method talks about Six Things Wrong for your character in the early scenes. Mark in blue something that makes your character blue/upset/angsty/angry. Have you shown at least one thing wrong with the person and/or with the world before it’s about to transform?
  3. THE WORLD BEFORE. The setting, the landscape, the context, some bit of that must be established to let us know what’s about to go away. Use yellow to shine a spotlight on the situation as it stands–whether it’s a stick of furniture or a satellite view of the landscape.
  4. ARRESTING IMAGE. Save the Cat recommends beginning with an opening image that resonates. Even better if it sums up the story! (Just think: English teachers will make their poor students talk about that symbolism for ages.) Mark with pink something that catches the eye in the first page or so, something that gets us curious and leaning forward.
  5. IRRESISTIBLE VOICE. Whether it’s the perspective or lens on the story, or it’s a resonant, engaging person talking to you, mark with purple the angle and sound and point of view that is unique. In other words, the teller of this tale must be king or queen and rule us for the rest of the pages.
  6. A CHANGE. It’s not the catalyst in my books–but that’s surely coming–and it’s not the Game Changer that the Story Engines method speaks of, but there should be something happening. Mark in green enough of a change, a plot moment that makes us sit up and say, Things are transforming here.

Gotta Have Story: Connect Those Dots

Image found here

We’re hardwired to tell stories. We are born to interpret, to weave and spin yarns, and fill in the gaps. Even if these gaps aren’t factual, we’ll build bridges that soar over the chasms. We require story in order to make memories.

Check out cognitive scientist Michael Gazzaniga’s explanation of how our brains work this way.

In Daniel Pink’s book A Whole New Mind, he argues that jobs of the future will require more storytellers and narrative designers.

Good thing our kids love telling stories, and so do we.

I’m always exploring ideas of how we can teach better storytelling while teaching literary analysis. How can we boost and hone our ability and our students’ ability to tell a great story and spot a stellar one? Here’s a two-day lesson plan.

Many teachers use E.M. Forster’s wonderful quotation about plot and I’ll up it one with the wise P.D. James:

E. M. Forster has written: ‘The king died and then the queen died is a story. The king died and the queen died of grief is a plot. The queen died and no one knew why until they discovered it was of grief is a mystery, a form capable of high development.’ To that I would add: the queen died and everyone thought it was of grief until they discovered the puncture wound in her throat. That is a murder mystery and, in my view, it too is capable of high development.


  • Give your students this quotation and announce that “we’re going to connect the dots–seemingly disconnected dots.”
  • Show students the DIRECTV commercials, which are hilarious cause-and-effect sequences that lean toward the ridiculous but have enough plausibility that we pay attention. After you watch these with students, ask: which are the best connections? Which are the most far-fetched? Why do we follow the far-fetched? What do you prefer, realism or fantastical creativity in your plot connections? Why?
  • Don’t Wake Up in a Roadside Ditch
  • Stop Taking in Stray Animals
  • Don’t Have a Grandson With a Dog Collar
  • Give the students a list of disconnected actions on separate cards: the baby cried; the phone rang; the tub overflowed; the man screamed; the swimmer dove; the woman danced; the dog surfed. Students can work in pairs to connect these two actions in a paragraph of 50 words or less The story needs to make sense and entertain. Students can work in pairs or triads to practice making connections. If partners have similar cards, it will be fun to see how different partnerships connect the same dots in very different ways.
  • Explain the importance of these elements in a strong plot: a catalyst that moves a character from one situation into another; a conflict with varying obstacles; and stages of escalation. (You may wish to bring in the screenplay formula from Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat and the 15 Beats of plot or the hero’s journey model from Joseph Campbell.) 
  • Assignment: take two dots and connect them according to one of the above formulas. The story should be as long as a Three-Minute Fiction piece
  • Assignment: divide chapters among partners or groups and ask students to connect the dots between key events and present them to the class with the following answers to these questions: Which plot development is most logical? Which plot development is most startling, yet works? Which plot follows either Snyder’s or Campbell’s formula? (Limit these presentations to 3 minutes per group; time them and require that the first minute be listing the outline of plot events and the last two minutes provide answers to the questions.)
  • The reward for the best stories can be measured in Dots candy. 
There are a gazillion more creative writing assignment ideas where this idea came from, but if you’re interested in more lessons of this sort connected to classics like Shakespeare or other literature, you can check out Teaching Julius Caesar (NCTE), Teaching Romeo and Juliet (NCTE, co-authored with Delia DeCourcy and Robin Follet), The Compassionate Classroom: Lessons That Nurture Wisdom and Empathy (Chicago Review Press, co-authored with Jane Dalton), or the Macbeth and Civil War units in the ASCD book Differentiation in Practice: A Resource Guide for Differentiating Curriculum, Grades 9-12

You’re So Pathetic…Let Me Kick Start You!

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

— Albert Einstein


We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.
— Albert Einstein 

Image found here

Ever looked pityingly upon a fellow human and thought, “Oh, you’re so pathetic”? This person might be one who plays the victim; one who willingly lies down like a doormat; a person who runs his car into the same ditch again and again and when stuck in a rut, cries up to you for help, saying, “Why me?”

The problems and the response of these individuals forever remain the same. The complaints always strike the same chord. The response you have is also the same: you wanna shake ’em.

(Of course I would never behave that way, we think. The mote in someone else’s eye is so much more compelling to spot.)

But the pathetic behavior of human beings–our tendency to keep knocking our heads against the same door–is a lesson about what we ought NOT to write and why we drop certain books. As my agent has coached me, we don’t want to hear about Wendy’s woes for too much of the book before we see her take action. Having just seen Lisbeth Salander kick a– and take names in THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, I’ve taken a few notes about powerful characters and why we need catalyst behavior in our stories.

Here are some tips for kick-starting your characters into New Year’s resolutions of new behavior. Get them off their I’m-such-a-sorry-soul track and into action that forces them out of their consistency, their comfort zone:

  • Write a chapter that ends on a cliffhanger and forces your character to choose Door A or Door B. Originally, I thought HOW WENDY REDBIRD DANCING SURVIVED THE DARK AGES OF NOUGHT would be a wovel (web novel) where I’d enlist readers help, giving the readers the vote of Door A or Door B? at the end of every chapter. That forced me to write a compelling first 50 pages, where each chapter ended at a crucial point in the action–either a defining moment, where the reader must digest something big, or a cliffhanger, a moment where the reader says, “Hmm, just a few pages more.”
  • Have your character encounter a person who is a foil–opposite in thought, action, family background, speech–and makes your character highly uncomfortable. In my novel, Wendy runs into two foils within the first 20 pages: her sworn enemy since seventh grade, the local Paris Hilton popular girl, and an evangelical Christian/BMOC, the school’s quarterback. The differences between Wendy and these two are great enough that sparks automatically fly.
  • Make a list of your characters’ intellectual and emotional traits and color code them by theme. For me, I could list the following characteristics for Wendy: gifted, highly verbal, analytical, argumentative, and all of those I might color blue. Another set of her characteristics are shy, defensive, suspicious–color those yellow. Then there is her angry and rageful side; there’s the sad and suicidal; there are the traits of creativity and her passion for research and writing. Red, green. I now have a rainbow. Does the plot of your story test every color in your characters’ rainbow?
  • Make a list of heart-clutching moments that can turn your character’s comfort zone upside down. In “How to Make Your Novel a Page-Turner,” Writer’s Digest author Elizabeth Sims gives some fantastic advice to keep the reader engaged, awake, and caring. She advises that your protagonist must survive tests of heart-clutching trials. You might want to print her list and keep it near your computer).

I’m not saying great art can’t be about the pathetic, dithering, wondering, worried, and paralyzed folk. Doesn’t Holden whine and wander for much of Catcher? Doesn’t Emma pound her head against a wall with well-intentioned but mistaken match-making in Jane Austen’s tale? Doesn’t Hamlet have a bit of trouble taking action? Doesn’t Lily Bart fall from grace for the entirety of The House of Mirth (and so very gracefully)? But what’s interesting about these stories is that we a) like the characters, b) believe the characters are doing the best they can, and c) enjoy watching them get into all kinds of scrapes avoiding the truth they refuse to see. It also helps that these authors (Salinger, Austen, Shakespeare, Wharton) were masters of scene and summary, style and image. If we can bring all that to the page, by all means, let your characters sit tight in the same spot for a few more scenes!

There’s also a distinct artistic choice to catalog the repetitive trials a pathetic, dis-likeable soul for many pages for the sheer art of all of the above–but frankly, I can only handle it with Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” A poem can contain just the right dose of pathetic, and then my tastes lean toward active heroes for the long haul of a novel.

In everyday life, pathetic behavior is understandable. After all, society often demands conformity. The road not taken is not what the neighbors and in-laws and family advise. Don’t rock the boat. Don’t alarm the neighbors. Color inside the lines!

But that’s everyday life and many of us don’t want to read about that. Gimme a break; gimme a hero, dark or otherwise. Iago and Lady Macbeth and Ewell might leave rack and ruin behind them, but by God, they did something before they died. Meanwhile, the Othellos and Macduffs and Atticuses left the world better than they found it. And it was fascinating to watch.

Writing Prompts

  • When are you most pathetic? Why? Write the stream-of-consciousness of your pathetic thoughts and paralyzed behaviors, letting someone enter inside your head in these moments.
  • Look at Elizabeth Sims’ list of heart-clutching moments for characters. In what situation have you found yourself in your life? Write that scene from memory with all the sensory detail you can muster.
  • Now rewrite that scene with a different beginning, middle, or end. Write it the way you wish things had gone; write it with you having different character traits or responses in the moment.
  • Write about someone who is your foil and how this person brings out the best or worst in you.
  • What are your least desirable traits of character? Your most admirable? In what situations have you seen both emerge? Write parallel scenes from your life where different sides of your character have been most evident. 
  • Can your protagonist be accused of being pathetic? When? Why? If you can’t see it, ask yourself where your character takes a new, significant action in the novel that he or she normally would not take. Now count the number of pages from page 1 where this action occurs. If you’re over 50 pages, go back and write a catalyst scene where your character is forced to do something seemingly “out of character” but required by the heart-clutching moment.
  • Find your favorite novel and pinpoint chapter ends that insist on page turns. See Sims’ list (the section titled, End Chapters with a Bang), and categorize the craft at work at the end of these scenes. Now turn to an end of one of your chapters–or all chapters in the first 50 pages of your novel–and see if your chapters accomplish the same thing.
  • What is the most appealing and least desirable characteristic your protagonist has? Have you let your protagonist show both those characteristics? Where? How? If not, write a scene where both traits emerge.