The first chapter…

In reading over several manuscripts, I ask myself, how does this writer introduce information about the characters? How much belongs in the first chapter?

Handling background information is one of the trickiest parts of writing. The general rule is to include only what’s needed up front, then gradually provide additional details. The problem is, how do you know what’s needed?

You want to involve the reader immediately with the story and characters. Anything that slows down that process, unless the information is essential to the scene, should be pared. However, the reader needs to feel grounded. Where are we, in what time period, and roughly how old are the characters (just a hint — don’t have to be specific)? Gender’s important, too, especially if you’re writing in the first person.

Don’t drop information in an awkward lump. It can be subtle. We know it’s present day if a character uses a cell phone. If she’s an atypical eighty-year-old who text messages, provide other clues.

Warning: avoid the cliché of having the hero or heroine see him/herself in the mirror. If someone’s shooting at the heroine and she’s running for her life, she might reflect that, beneath the streetlights, her blonde hair is probably turning her into a target. Or, in a different situation, she might compare herself with someone. For instance, she considers her friend’s shiny dark hair much more striking than her light brown curls. Or have someone else comment on her coloring, height, etc.

Make sure details reveal character. To say the heroine’s wearing a business suit or a cocktail dress is often sufficient, but if she’s klutzy, she’ll have a stain on that outfit. If she’s wearing a business suit at a cocktail party, perhaps she’s a workaholic, or an absent-minded exec.

Furnishings, too, should be relevant. If she’s an impoverished heroine in a Regency romance, show the threadbare sofa and chipped porcelain bowls.

Drawing the reader into the story immediately is essential these days. Unlike in the 19th century, when novels could begin at a leisurely pace, we have to compete with TV, DVDs, videogames, and cell phones. In commercial fiction (literary fiction has its own rules), what are we trying to accomplish on Page One?

Make the tone fit the genre. If it’s scary, make it tense or eerie. If it’s funny, keep the tone light. Aim for sparkling prose and dialogue. Prune clichés and chitchat. In a romance, introduce a hero or heroine that the reader can care about. If we can’t tell the protagonists from the secondary characters right off the bat, you’re in trouble. Establish a clear point of view. Try to keep it to a single point of view per scene. Watch out for frequent shifts, also known as head hopping, especially on the first page.

What you want to do is make your beginning draw the reader in. Actually, you want to do this with the entire book, but it’s especially important in the beginning. If you don’t get them then, you’ve lost them completely. Most people don’t have time these days to wade through a hundred pages to get to the good stuff. Put the good stuff up front, and keep it there throughout the story. That will win you readers.

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