So here at Middle Grade Minded we’ve been talking about WIPs...those promising, confounding works-in-progress which sometimes feel like a glittering ship we’re joyously aboard, and sometimes like a patch of quicksand that we can’t pull ourselves out of.
I have a particularly interesting relationship with my own WIP at the moment, because I am just right now starting a new one. Ah, that first-date thrill, those standing on the high-dive jitters, that squeezing, thrilling trifecta of possibility, peril, and pressure!
I also recently had the opportunity to be on the faculty at a regional SCBWI conference (my first time, and a real pleasure and honor). One of my workshops was on what to include in a great first chapter. So, I’ve really had first chapters on my mind...both as an “instructor” (a nametag I hardly feel qualified to wear) and as a writer currently figuring out how to start off my shiny new WIP.
So, today’s topic: my favorite three things to see in a great MG first chapter. I’m not saying that all MG first chapters should have all these things - none of us like formulaic stories, after all - but these are just things that as a voracious MG reader (and a librarian who shares MG lit with kids everyday) I personally like to see in a first chapter, and things I try hard to include in my own first chapters.
1. Start us with a SCENE! I love stories that begin not with a minute-by-minute account of a kid’s day, or a poetic description of a setting, or an info-dump of backstory to “get us ready” for the real story, but with a tight, gripping, important scene. A scene that shows us something about the character of the main character. A scene that gives us a feel for the tone of the story. A scene that hints at the beginning of both the exterior (plot) arc of the story, and the interior (emotional) arc of the protagonist. Everything else can come later: subplots, backstory, origins, secondary characters, etc. For now, show us the protagonist in a compelling scene. Let us know who they are, how they behave, and make us start to care for them. Don’t tell us who the character is and how this story is going to feel...show us those things, and show us with a vivid, memorable scene. Want us to know that your protagonist is upset over her parents’ divorce and miserable on her first day at a new school? Don’t tell us this or summarize it...show us her locked in a bathroom stall at school, crying her eyes out...and then let us see how she reacts when she overhears two other girls having a very private - and intriguing - conversation.
2. Make us WONDER about something! When the first chapter ends, we the reader should have at least one burning question in our mind. Perhaps you’ve given us a compelling hint that the protagonist is haunted by a traumatic past, and we’re dying to know: where did those scars on Jeremiah’s legs come from? Maybe your opening scene put them in a terrible situation, and we can’t wait to see how it turns out: how will Robbie and William escape from the bullies that cornered them in the locker room? Or maybe your protagonist reacted in an unpredictable way, and now we’re super curious: why did Rebecca spit on her dad’s coffin at the funeral? Leave the reader with at least one juicy question dangling in their minds, and what you’re really leaving them with is a reason to keep on reading. One important word of caution, though: there’s a fine but important line between WONDER and CONFUSION. Sometimes I see writers leave too much information out, no doubt thinking that they’ll explain it later and leave us rabid with curiosity in the meantime. Just be sure to give the reader enough to hang onto, otherwise they’ll just let go. Make us curious, not confused.
3. Leave us with MOMENTUM! The last thing you want is a nice, tidy ending to Chapter One, where the reader nods peacefully, lets out a satisfied sigh, and sets your book down. No! In a perfect world it should be almost unthinkable for your reader to set your book down after the first chapter, either because they already care about the main character and want to go along on their journey, or because they’re totally hooked by the plot and want to see how it turns out (or, ideally, both: an intriguing character set in a high-interest story). Your first chapter doesn’t have to be an actual cliffhanger, but it should feel like an interesting beginning to a great story we can’t wait to read - not a nice little short story that we can set down and walk away from (or, worst of all, an uninteresting 15 minutes of our lives we wish we could get back). What we’re looking for in our first chapters is not to give our readers a satiating snack, but just the opposite: a ravenous hunger. Leave us off-balance, leave us falling forward, leave us reaching to turn the next page.
It’s always great to have a good example. There are countless terrific first middle grade chapters, but I’ll leave you with a classic: Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen. In chapter one, we meet the protagonist Brian as he gets on a small plane with the pilot. We learn just a bit of backstory - really just enough to get to know Brian and understand why he’s taking this trip - and it’s all weaved into one tight scene with him and the pilot in this little plane flying over the uninhabited, thickly forested Canadian wildlands. During the conversation we get a sense of Brian, of his anger and confusion and stubbornness. And then...the pilot has a heart attack. He dies. And Brian is left alone, on an airplane over the wilderness, with the pilot dead. End chapter.
We had a scene that showed us just enough important stuff about the character to make us care about him. We are wildly wondering what Brian is going to do next and how this is going to end. And we have so much momentum we can hardly stand it….he’s hurtling through the sky with no pilot and nothing but uncharted nature below him! Can you imagine a reader putting that book down after chapter one with a disinterested shrug?
So let’s all cast an eye on our WIPs. Let’s look at the opening chapter (I know I am, obsessively) and make it the best it can be. Because the first chapter is the most important chapter in your book. It’s your one chance to grab the attention of an agent, an editor, and a reader. It’s not just their first impression of your book...if it’s not great, it’ll be their only impression. Let’s make it a great one.