3 Ways Your First Chapter/Scene Sets Up Your Story

Character, setting, sense of the story. Does your opening have it all?

I have to admit that this is a topic I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. How do you set up your story in the opening scene or chapter without giving it all away? In essence, you are making promises to your reader, promises that you have to keep. But how do you do this if the magic, in a fantasy, or the murder, in a mystery, doesn’t come until much later?

Then I saw Chris Eboch’s article on Fiction University – The Promise of the First Chapter. In the first chapter, the reader is introduced to your story. This means that they get to know three things:

The Main Character

Who is the story about? This is where the reader meets your main characters and gets to know a little bit about them.

This part works well enough in my story. The point-of-view is third person close so the story is from Clara’s point of view. But you also see what type of person she is. Yes, she is getting new tires on her car (boring) but she’s also trying to juggle giving a neighbor who can’t drive a ride to the hair salon and picking up her husband’s tux.

Why did I start it here? Clara is someone who does a lot for other people. Maybe a bit too much and she needs to focus on herself.

The Setting

Where and when does your story take place? Even if you don’t name your city, state and year, your reader should know if this is contemporary and a gritty urban setting or the suburbs. I name the city where the story opens (Nashville) and it is obvious the story is contemporary because of the cell phone usage.

Problems? The story quickly moves to another city. That change is set into motion by the end of the chapter so I’m comfortable that it works. I just hope my Beta readers agree!

What Type of Story Is It?

The first story also lets your reader know if this is fantasy, historical, or a mystery. And this is where I might have a problem. The murder doesn’t happen for several chapters – something that I’ve seen in many cozies. But that means I need to set the scene early on.

This is a big problem because I don’t feel like I’ve done that in chapter 1. I’m going to try to reshape the chapter so that Clara feels threatened.

What about your work in progress? If you’re writing a novel you have one chapter to get this done. If you are writing a short story, accomplish it in a scene. A picture book? The first two spreads. In that lenght of time, readers need to know what they are getting into.