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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.