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Johne

Ten Ways to Write a Better First Chapter Using Specific Word Choices

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Well, look at this - this guidance from (our own) K.M. Weiland is super timely! The example Katie mentions is at the link below.
https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/critique-10-ways-to-write-a-better-first-chapter-with-specific-word-choices/
 

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First chapters are notoriously complex in the multiple jobs they must execute seamlessly—introducing characters, settings, and conflict all in a way that seduces readers deep into the dream world you wish to share.

 

A good story is created from the combination of so many important factors. As we talk about so often on this site, solid story structure, character arcs, and themes are a huge part of what makes a story work. If any of these things are broken, readers are unlikely to find deep satisfaction by the time they finish your story. But it won’t matter how great your execution of story theory may be if you can’t first hook readers with your first chapter. You’ve got to convince them to read the doggone thing first.
 

To that end, let’s break down how Dawna convinced me.
 

1. Hook Readers With a Specific Question

First, you gotta land that right hook. There are many ways to do this, some flashier than others, but the common factor in all hooks is that they pique readers’ curiosity. In essence, a hook is a question—either explicit or implicit. A hook is an indication that something is, or shortly will be, off-kilter in the story world. Something doesn’t quite make sense. There is a mystery afoot. Even before readers meet the protagonist and make that all-important bond of empathy, they can be hooked with the promise that something is amiss.

Dawna does this seamlessly with her opening line promising a “bad thing” will happen. This is not an uncommon approach, but the technique is subtly strengthened here by opening not with “a bad thing happened,” but with “before the bad thing happened.” It’s a little different from what we normally see, it allows the story background to be sketched in (giving us characters to care about before we get to the punchline), and it immediately raises dramatic tension.


2. Hook Readers With a Specific Character Voice

For me, the single biggest test for whether or not I’ll read on is the story’s voice. I want a story that sounds either interesting and/or beautiful. I don’t want a story that sounds like an automaton (an effect often symptomatic of too much telling) or like every other story I may have already browsed today.

Voice is one of the most crucial, but also often one of the most elusive elements of story. A solid voice is a composite emergent of multiple factors—all of which come down to word choice and point to authorial competence. Dawna shows competence with her narrator’s voice throughout the excerpt, something she signals from the very first line with the grammatically idiosyncratic “just us five Raessen kids.”

Note that it’s not enough to give your narrator idiosyncratic or slangy grammar. The more unique the syntax, the more convincing the entire weft of the text must be in order to convince readers it is authentic and not just an authorial affectation.


3. Hook Readers With Specific Names and Language

Every word choice offers you an opportunity to breathe life into your story. Make your word choices as specific as possible. Don’t say the kids played “games” when you can specify they played “chase or tag or hide-and-seek.”

Perhaps more overlooked is the opportunity your character names have to bring your story to life. The first tip is to name your characters, as early as possible, within the narrative. The second tip is to choose names that say something.

The sisters in this story could have been named Sarah and Anne; nobody would have thought twice about it. But how much more interesting are these characters because their names are Shone and Campanula? (Not to mention the delightful childishness of one sister outdoing the other by choosing the title “Queener.”)


4. Hook Readers With Specific But Subtle Symbolism and Foreshadowing

This early in the first chapter, readers are still trying to figure out what the story is about. Inserting subtle symbolism can work to both characterize the opening scene and hint at what will come.

Knowing Dawna’s story is dark fantasy adds portentous overtones to the children’s game of escaping “the evil fairy king by reading messages written in blood across egg yolks.” Whether this game is directly related to the subsequent conflict or not, it sets the stage for dark magic to come, and it does so in a way that is so pertinent to the introduction that the symbolism alone acts as foreshadowing—without drawing undue attention to itself. In the busyness of a first chapter, this kind of subtlety goes a long way.


5. Hook Readers With Specific Prose Techniques

When examining a first chapter to determine whether or not an author knows her stuff, the wordcraft itself is always one of the greatest indicators. There are many techniques that contribute to a solid prose style—everything from description, to word tricks like alliteration, to proper rhythm from sentence to sentence.

Dawna shows solid wordcraft throughout this excerpt. One particularly nice example that pulled me in deeper with the rhythmic promise inherent in good writing is the subtle repetition of names throughout the first paragraph:

…the Peter Liam Bob team against me and Shone. Odin wasn’t born yet. When everybody was getting along we’d play chase or tag or hide-and-seek, but just me and Shone, just the two of us, was the best. Queen Shone and Queener Campanula. We’d spin bits of fleece from the farmer’s sheep, play dress up and pretend we were trying to escape the evil fairy king by reading messages written in blood across egg yolks that we tossed back in triumph. When it was just me and Shone, we always won. Me and Shone were closer than quarter to nine.

This kind of repetition doesn’t always work, but when it does it creates a poetic  solidity readers can lean into.


6. Hook Readers With Specific Setting Details

Setting is an important character in its own right—especially in the first chapter. As a reader, I want to be given details that help me see the story. I don’t want to be visualizing characters running around in a void. But this is tricky. Too often, writers info dump settings that—however beautifully written or sharply detailed—distract from the momentum of the hook.

The key to grounding setting in the beginning is to choose a few specific details that can be evoked seamlessly from the story’s existent action. Dawna does this throughout the excerpt in many subtle ways (starting with the narrator’s country accent, which hints at where she’s from). She waits until the second paragraph to offer a swift but specific setting description, then moves on.


7. Hook Readers With Specific Follow-Up Hooks

The hook question that opens your story may remain unanswered until the very end of the story. But it may also be answered or partially answered just a few paragraphs later. In either case, the initial hook won’t be able to sustain reader interest indefinitely. It will need to be followed up by many more small hook questions throughout the entire story.

Here, Dawna doesn’t stretch readers’ patience past the fourth paragraph before both answering the initial question—and then deepening the mystery. We find out that the “bad thing” teased in the first line is the narrator’s beloved sister going missing. But the mystery around her disappearance only raises more questions—as well as signaling to readers what this story’s conflict will likely be about.


8. Hook Readers With Specific Descriptive Details

There are whole books that are entrancing not so much for their tight plots or deep characters, but for their beautiful prose. Appropriate beautiful prose never goes amiss is upping your story’s value. But the word choices, timing, and frequency must be apt for your specific story.

When Dawna ended the paragraph about Shone’s disappearance with the quietly and darkly beautiful phrase “white petals on black water,” she really grabbed me. Interesting characters—check. Mysterious hook—check. Appropriately beautiful word choices—check.


9. Hook Readers With Specific Characterization

One of the most difficult challenges for any first chapter is evoking a character readers can care about, but doing it quickly enough that it doesn’t slow down the momentum or feel like an info dump.

Dawna does this beautifully in characterizing a character who isn’t even present onstage—the missing Shone. In less than a sentence, she creates in readers an ache of the tragedy the narrator feels over her lost sister. She does this entirely through specific word choices such as describing Shone as a “bright light with skin on it.”


10. Hook Readers With Specific Showing Details

Specificity is the essence of proper showing (versus the inevitable generality of telling). Dawna could easily have explained the aftermath of Shone’s disappearance by saying her mother “went crazy.” Instead, she shows readers what happened by describing the mother’s specific actions. (This is in contrast with what is, in my opinion, one of the weaker phrases in the excerpt, when the narrator tells readers “my head felt like it was going to explode.”)

***

Learning how to choose the most specific and appropriate words for your story can make all the difference in helping you write a better first chapter. My thanks to Dawna for sharing her wonderful excerpt, and my best wishes for her story’s success. Stay tuned for more analysis posts in the future!

 

 

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