Getting Started, by Beverley Bittner

Most of us have read a poem, a story or an article that caused us to exclaim, “I could write like that, maybe even better, if only I knew how to get started.

Kathy has a book of fiction in the works. She has a plot, she knows her characters, but (in my opinion) is trying to tell too much of the story in her first chapter. Here are a few suggestions that might help Kathy and you and I get started right.

The first chapter has only two basic purposes.

  1. To introduce the main character (or two of the main characters). That means a physical description, hint at the problem he/she faces that will be the basis of conflict in the book. When and where the story is taking place can be shown by a few words. “Action”, “show”, “don’t tell” are words to keep you on track. (Introducing characters, one by one, each in a separate chapter is a good way to get your novel moving along.)
  2. You must HOOK the reader in your first paragraphs and certainly in the first chapter. Don’t overload the reader with background and facts that can be brought out later. By promising lots of action, dialogue, backstory in small doses, you can make the reader WANT to read your book. If you don’t hook him in the first pages, you have lost your reader.

The first scene of the first chapter must tell:

WHO is the story about?
WHERE and WHEN is the story taking place?
WHY is the main character there?
WHAT problems is the character facing?

This may seem like a lot of information to get in the first scene, but remember you don’t want to give away your story or tell too much. Be a tease, hint at events to come.

Now that all-important first sentence

It should tell something about the main character. It should tell something about or hint at the character’s problem, and the theme of the book. Is it a mystery? Love story? Inspirational? Is a historical event itself the focus of the story?

If you have a work in progress, look at it and see if your opening sentence, scene and first chapter measure up to these guidelines. If it is a first, second, or third draft, probably not. Only by rereading, rewriting, and finally working as your own editor, will your first chapter pass the eagle eye of an admissions editor.


Here at Writer’s Block we have two goals: (1) to help people of all ages learn to share their ideas and experiences through the written word, and (2) to promote reading for pleasure and learning.

For our Corry, Pennsylvania area friends, we have several appearances scheduled during the year where we can meet you in person. We look forward to seeing you, so please stop and say hello.

We are aware that some of our readers are far away from our small, rural community in Northwestern Pennsylvania. It is thrilling to read our weekly stats and find that we have had “hits” from Australia, Canada, Ireland, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. Our fine and knowledgeable Webmaster told us, “You have got to start thinking globally.” As always, he was right!

It is indeed a small world, thanks to the worldwide web. We welcome everyone of like interests to be part of our world of reading, writing, and lifelong learning. E-mail us your questions, comments, or ideas.

That’s all from the Editor’s Desk for this month…

—Beverley Bittner
Copyright © 1999

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