From the first page of your story, you are making promises to your reader whether you like it or not. Based on how the characters talk to each other and what happens, rea
ders will assume things about your book.
Some of these assumptions are the kind writers love to destroy with fabulous plot twists, but, for the most part, authors WANT to make promises at the beginning of a book that are fulfilled throughout. No reader wants to pick up a book they think is a happy rom-com and find out halfway through it’s a horror story and all the characters they hoped would be kissing by page 103 are dead in puddles of their own blood.
So, here’s how you can make the right kinds of promises in your book starting from the very first chapter.
Setting: I know, it sounds silly. OF COURSE the setting is important, but where your first chapter takes place is going to tell your reader what is possible in your story. Your readers need a very clear picture of where your character is and what they are doing within the first few sentences. A lively conversation taking place as two characters walk to English class together will make very different promises than a conversation that takes place on, say, a tank. If you story starts in English class but ends up on a tank, the opening scenes needs to hint that a tank is possible.
Movement: It’s a lot easier to show who your character is and what they want if the character is moving. Give them something to do, give them a goal. If that goal is “survive the walk to English class without making eye contact with Brett Kelsier, the cute new kid” it’s going to tell us something very different than “survive the walk to English without making eye contact with Brett Kelsier, because last time I let him look me in the eye I found a decapitated ferret in my locker the next day.”
I’m still stuck on the rom-com/horror mismatch. Sorry guys.
Flavor: Use your words wisely. Consciously use language that hints at what kind of story is to come, and do it using your character’s point of view as a lens. If we spend a lot of time with the character making witty observations about the world around them and explaining about their family situation, it tells us the rest of the book is probably going to emphasize relationships and people, and there probably won’t be a knife fight in the next chapter because that wouldn’t match. If we spend a whole paragraph on how nice Brett Kelsier looks in skinny jeans, that tells us romance is on the table. If Brett Kelsier has a smile sharp enough to puncture skin and hair curled tighter than a small intestine, well . . . you get the idea.
To see an example, try watching these two opening scenes. Content warning: both these movies are PG13 and shooting/death is involved.
Basically, the same thing happens in both scenes. There are soldiers in a dangerous place (setting!). They are going somewhere (movement!). People attack them, bad stuff happens. BUT, if you pay attention to what the main characters say and do, the tone (in books tone is communicated through the way your character interacts with and describes the world around them) there are very different promises being made about what kind of story is coming.
Caitlin Sangster is the author of Last Star Burning, Shatter the Suns, and Dead Moon Rising, but, contrary to what you may think, is not obsessed with celestial bodies. She's the founder and co-host of Lit Service Podcast.
Caitlin shares lots of writing tips on her podcast which also does first chapter critiques. She'll be doing a live show and a first chapter critique with Kiersten White!
Here's the submission link: https://litservicepodcast.wixsite.com/litnation/tabc