craft review by Beth Mitchell
First chapters are tricky. The craft books tell us that our first chapter needs to ground the reader in the world of our story. It needs to introduce the protagonist and establish the narrative voice. It needs to sow the seeds of the internal story and the external plot. Above all, it needs to hook the reader.
My weakness is the slow start. I’m talking about pages and pages of throat clearing. While I’m writing that first draft, those pages feel like essential set-up. Later, though, I find that a whole chapter or more is unnecessarily delaying my inciting incident.
Of course, I’m also capable of over-correcting. Determined to avoid the ho-hum beginning, I jump straight into a chase scene or an argument. Conflict. Tension. High stakes. Unfortunately, I’m likely to leave my reader asking, “Huh? Who are all these people? And why are they shouting?”
The best advice I’ve read lately on first chapters is Chapter 14 of Cheryl Klein’s The Magic Words. With a checklist of eight elements and a several well-chosen examples, she shows how an author should strike a balance, drawing the reader in and pointing toward the inciting incident without overwhelming the reader. In sum, she says: “Write your first chapter like you’re performing a striptease, not going to a nude beach.” (p. 282)
A.F. Harrold pulls off this balance beautifully in The Imaginary, a story about an imaginative girl named Amanda, her best (and imaginary) friend Rudger, and the terrifying Mr. Bunting who hunts and devours imaginaries. Although Harrold starts with a prologue (titled “Introduction” and flashing forward to events that occur in Chapter 5), here I want to focus on the way he incorporates three of Klein’s recommended elements into Chapter 1: (1) a tease, (2) a compelling character, and (3) easing in.
Entice the Reader with a Tease
The first sentence of The Imaginary is a marvelous tease: “That evening Amanda Shuffleup opened her wardrobe door and hung her coat up on a boy.” (p. 3)
What?! A strange boy? In the wardrobe? We immediately want to know more. But the narrator isn’t telling. Instead, we watch as Amanda confronts the problem of wet sneakers and knotted shoelaces (which she solves with scissors, by the way).
It’s not until almost four pages later, when Amanda opens the wardrobe again to hide the sneakers from her mother, that we hear more about this boy. He’s standing in plain sight throughout the next scene, and Amanda worries about what her mother will say. But her mother just chides her about her wet coat and shoes. We start to wonder whether the boy is really there.
That scene continues for four more pages before the boy first speaks to Amanda. He tells her he liked her joke, the one her mother didn’t think was funny at all. In the following interaction between Amanda and the boy, he seems very real. He walks, talks, and chews gum. He can even be tricked into tumbling out of the wardrobe.
Only on the very last page of the chapter is the truth about the boy confirmed: “It was clear to Rudger and Amanda that only she could see him, no one else. Obviously he was Amanda’s friend, not to be shared, and Rudger rather liked that feeling.” (p. 15)
And even then, because of what we’ve learned from the prologue and this first chapter, we’re left with questions. From Amanda’s point of view, Rudger was already there when she opened her wardrobe door to hang up her wet coat. From Rudger’s point of view, he woke up in her wardrobe when she slammed the front door with no memory of where he was before.
So, what kind of imaginary friend is he? Does he exist apart from Amanda? What would happen to him if Amanda were suddenly gone? These narrative questions help pull us into the next chapter.
Action: Make sure your opening raises a narrative question in your reader’s mind.
Create a Character with Telling Details
We learn a lot about Amanda Shuffleup in the first chapter of The Imaginary.
First, she’s very imaginative. That much is clear just from the way she thinks about ordinary things like knotted shoelaces. When she considers the consequences of not being able to get her shoes off, her mind leaps from having wet feet for life to wearing the same shoes for life to never growing up because her feet are trapped like a bonsai tree in a small pot. And when she finds the scissors to cut her knotted shoelaces, she feels “like a princess who’s just found a dragon tied to a tree and has pulled from her backpack the exact thing she needs to set it free (a sword, say, or a book about rescuing dragons).” (p.6)
Second, she’s a bit of a non-conformist. She twice contrasts herself with her school friends Vincent and Julia, who do not splash in puddles or get mucky (and who, we later learn, cannot see Rudger). She has drawers under her bed “cram-packed with important junk.” (p. 8) She’s intrigued by the strange boy in her room and not at all concerned about her mother’s rules about wet coats and muddy shoes.
Finally, she thinks highly of herself. She declares herself a genius after she gets her wet shoes off: “Who else, she wondered, would have found so simple a solution so quickly?” (p. 7) She pronounces her own joke “about the funniest joke [she’s] said all day.” (p. 13) She declares her trick on Rudger “absolutely brilliant.” (p. 14)
All of these details combine to make Amanda interesting. We feel like we know how she thinks, so we’ll be able to predict her reactions to the events of the story. Because of the prologue, we’re worried that something bad is going to happen to her. In short, she’s a character we want to follow into the next chapter.
Action: Choose your details carefully to let the reader into the mind of your protagonist.
Ease the Reader into the Story
On an emotional scale of 1 to 10, the first chapter of The Imaginary is no more than a 3. It takes place in a single setting, Amanda’s bedroom. There is action, of course, but a quiet sort of action. Amanda deals with knotted shoelaces, has an everyday confrontation with her mother over wet, muddy shoes, and meets an imaginary friend.
The rest of the book has plenty of excitement—including intruders, chases, and danger. But the threat of the sinister Mr. Bunting doesn’t appear until the second chapter. The first chapter mainly introduces us to Amanda and her imaginary friend. And that’s a good thing. It gives the reader a chance to meet Rudger—and like him—before anyone tries to eat him.
Action: Don’t try to do too much with your first chapter.
According to Klein, “the number one thing that hooks readers is authority—a sense that the writer is in complete control of the story and how it’s being told.” (p. 282) That’s the perfect way to describe what Harrold accomplishes in The Imaginary. He teases the reader, shows us how interesting his protagonist is, and eases us into the adventure of the story. The result is a first chapter that is intriguing and charming, not rushed or confusing.
Beth Mitchell lives in the coastal mountains of Northern California with her husband and two sons. A member of the Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators, she writes middle grade novels and blogs about the books she and her boys love at https://bethmitchell.rocks.