5 Essentials of a First Chapter

by Susan May Warren, @SusanMayWarren

There are a lot of checklists for building a first chapter, and sometimes they can get overwhelming. Over at My Book Therapy we have an advanced checklist we use to help people build their first scene (it’s the same checklist I use when building my first chapters!). However, I admit, it can get overwhelming.

So, let’s start with just 5 things. (I made a nifty acronym to help you remember, just because that’s how my brain works. You don’t have to use it.)

You’re starting your story at the edge of a C.L.I.F.F.:

Competence: Show that your character is good at something and can eventually win the day with these skills.

Lie: Where will your character start their inner journey (at MBT, we call it the lie they believe…which sets them up later for the “truth that sets them free.”_

Ignition: Set up the Inciting Incident. Perhaps it’s just the hint of the II. Maybe it is the actual II. But hint that that something could be happening…even if you are setting up a perfect world situation, we will then suspect your character is about to fall, hard.

Fear: We want to know what your character fears – maybe he sees something, or he says something, it’s usually very subtle, but something that we can look at later and say, yes, we saw what he didn’t want to have happen!

Focus: We want to see what your character wants, what his goals are. What is he about?

Because you know your character, you should be able to craft this scene. If not, start with a character interview.

Questions to ask your character to help build the first chapter

Competence: What are you good at? What are your super power skills that we can highlight now to show how you’ll save the day at the end?

Lie: What Lie do you believe and how do you show this in your everyday life?

Ignition: What will happen in this chapter, big or small, that will change the life of your character and ignite him on his journey?

Fear: What fear hangs over the book and how can you hint at it in this first chapter?

Focus/Want: How can you express your characters focus in this chapter? Show who they are and what they want?

Now, pull out your first scene draft. What elements from this first scene reveal your character’s identity? Add that to the recipe.

The final step is to wrap all of this up in Home World: inserting the 5 W’s – Who, What, Where, When, and Why. All these should give you the framework of your first chapter.

Here’s a hint. Don’t write, just talk through the scene with a friend or craft partner. See if you have captured all the elements. If it doesn’t work, try a different scene. Now that you know what you’re looking for, you can build the scene verbally before you get it on the page (but remember to take notes of your conversation!)

Remember, you don’t have to get the scene right on the first pass…you’re still in rough draft mode. Just shoot for these 5 basic elements. You will go back later and add in the advanced list to bring your scene to publication level.

Start the first scene with your character on the edge of the CLIFF…ready to take off into the story. Build in the 5 elements: Competence, Lie, Ignition, Fear, Focus into your Home World and you’ll have a powerful foundation to your story.

Have a great writing week!

Susie May



A Matter of Trust (Montana Rescue Book #3)

Champion backcountry snowboarder Gage Watson has left the limelight behind after the death of one of his fans. After being sued for negligence and stripped of his sponsorships, he’s remade his life as a ski patrol in Montana’s rugged mountains, as well as serving on the PEAK Rescue team. But he can’t seem to find his footing–or forget the woman he loved, who betrayed him.

Senator and former attorney Ella Blair spends much of her time in the limelight as the second-youngest senator in the country. But she has a secret–one that cost Gage his career. More than anything, she wants to atone for her betrayal of him in the courtroom and find a way to help him put his career back on track.

When Ella’s brother goes missing on one of Glacier National Park’s most dangerous peaks, Gage and his team are called in for the rescue. But Gage isn’t so sure he wants to help the woman who destroyed his life. More, when she insists on joining the search, he’ll have to keep her safe while finding her reckless brother, a recipe for disaster when a snowstorm hits the mountain.

But old sparks relight as they search for the missing snowboarder–and suddenly, they are faced with emotions neither can deny. But when Ella’s secret is revealed, can they learn to trust each other–even when disaster happens again?

Susan May Warren
 is owner of Novel Rocket and the founder of Novel.Academy. A Christy and RITA award-winning author of over fifty novels with Tyndale, BarbourSteeple HillSummerside Press and Revell publishers, she’s an eight-timeChristy award finalist, a three-time RITA Finalist, and a multi-winner of the Inspirational Readers Choice award and the ACFW Carol. A popular writing teacher at conferences around the nation, she’s also the author of the popular writing method, The Story Equation. A full listing of her titles, reviews and awards can be found at: www.susanmaywarren.com. Contact her at: susan@mybooktherapy.com.