“Any element in the prologue that advances the story should be written in the story itself.”
The most edited page of an entire manuscript is the very first. The first page has a tremendous amount of responsibility. Not only does it set the tone and mood for the full novel, but it also must immediately hook the reader in a compelling—and sometimes show stopping—manner.
And that’s just page one.
As a contemporary romance novelist of an award-winning trilogy, I’ve spent countless hours revising and tweaking my collective work (over 220,000 words). The reality here though is that my long hours of editing could have been rendered pointless had my first chapter in each book not been enough to pull my readers into the story.
Writing the first chapter of a fiction novel is difficult for a handful of reasons. Most notably, if you cannot draw a reader in from the onset, your work is dead in the water. But that’s not all your first chapter must do. In fact, there are five essential must do things at work here. Your first chapter must:
Introduce the main character. This one is obvious. Simply put, your main character must be the focal point of the introductory chapter. There are two standout ways to introduce your reader. The first is to start the story in their “everyday life”. For example, they may have a standing coffee date with a friend every Tuesday at 9 AM. By starting the story in the coffeehouse, this helps the reader understand their lifestyle and how they spend their time. With this approach, you’re helping the reader gain a sense for the character’s personality and characteristics.
Contrastingly, you can also take the exact opposite approach and start the story in the heat of drama. The reader will likely have a more difficult time jumping into the story (with no context or background), but if done well, this tactic can be used to hook the reader while playing up the high stakes of the moment. For example, is your main character running from the police? Oftentimes when authors use this approach, the story will not play chronologically. And that’s okay! There is no one right way to introduce your reader to the main character. It just matters that the introduction is made.
Reveal or allude to your main character’s goal. What does your main character want? Keep in mind there are two goals at play here. Externally, what are they trying to accomplish? Do they want a new job? A new apartment? Do they want to find love? The external goal is responsible for moving the plot forward, so be sure to capitalize and pick a goal that’ll catapult the story forward—with momentum.
Where the external goal moves the plot, the internal goal advances your character’s arc. “Good stories” become “good stories” in this way because they’re emotionally driven. It’s not enough for a main character to want something tangible like a large sum of money or a spouse; they also must have something to overcome. Enter the fatal flaw…
Expose the main character’s fatal flaw. The fatal flaw is also twofold. Externally, they may appear grumpy or have a lackluster outlook on life. Theses traits are easier to write and provide a reader with a clear character profile. But here’s the secret: this is where the magic happens. Main characters must have something they’re internally working to overcome—and whatever it is, runs deep. For example, perhaps they were emotionally abused as a child. Maybe the main character absorbed the blame for their parents’ divorce. Or they lost a loved one to illness. Whatever the scenario, the deep-seated feelings will hinder the main character’s arc until the final plot point.
Demonstrate that the main character’s flaw is worthy of redemption. If your main character is bruised (and they should be, somehow), there must also be something that makes them a redeemable character. Even if your main character is a villain and sells illegal drugs to teens, there must be something about them that makes a reader invested in their arc.
One of the best resources I have found on this topic is Save the Cat! Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody. The idea here is that everyone has a redeeming quality. So, if your main character sells drugs to kids, they also mow the lawn for their elderly neighbor every Saturday afternoon—free of charge. Strong characters live and die by their redeeming characteristic(s).
Hook the reader. And lastly, your first chapter must indeed hook the reader. And as difficult as that may sound, you have a lot to work with to set yourself up for success. A strong hook tells a compelling story, while also helping your reader relate to and understand the struggles the main character faces. Choose your best path forward and do what works best for your own story.
Much is at stake in your first chapter, but if you aim to include these five essential components, you’re sure to start off with a BANG!
As an added bonus, here’s the single thing a first chapter should not do. Do not commit the crime of “information dumping”. It is the author’s responsibility to show, not tell the reader the back story. Challenge yourself to reveal the essential details in a more natural way that suites the story. Lean on dialogue and your main character’s actions to share the pertinent details needed for reader success.
If you’re thinking, “I’ll just include all the backstory in the prologue,” let me stop you right there with a word of caution. Prologues force the reader to begin the story twice. If your reader become emotionally invested or interested in the prologue, you’ll lose that momentum when chapter one abruptly begins. And that’s exactly what you do not want to do.
In sum, any element in the prologue that advances the story should be written in the story itself.