6 Ways to Set Up Your Story in the First Chapter

Your Ultimate First Chapter Checklist, Pt. 3: Introducing the Story

6 Ways to Set Up Your Story in the First Chapter PinterestThe reason the first chapter of a story is so complex is because it bears a triple load of responsibility. First, it must hook readers. Then it must offer a compelling and interesting scene of its own. And finally, it must set up the entire story to come. Today, let’s dive into our third and final first chapter checklist: setting up the story.

Personally, I have always found that writing a first draft gets easier almost chapter by chapter. By the time I get to the Third Act, the book practically writes itself. This is because, when you do your job right in the early chapters, you will already have accomplished the meticulous work of setting up your dominoes. By the time the final parts of the story roll around, you get to flick those dominoes and watch them fall neatly under their own power.

But, by implication, this means the first chapters are where you have to do most of the heavy lifting. Although hooking readers and writing a strong opening scene are crucial to convincing readers to read on, it’s the third of our checklists—setting up the story itself—that decides whether the ending, and thus the book itself, works.

>>Read Part 1 of this series: Hooking Readers

>>Read Part 2 of this series: Writing the Opening Scene

What does it mean to introduce your story in the first chapter? Doesn’t that just mean starting at the beginning and letting the plot unfold, scene by scene? In part, yes. But a successful introduction involves much more than just the obvious context of the first scene (which we discussed in Part 2). A successful introduction of your story is an introduction of the deeper subtext—the thematic principle, the protagonist’s arc, and the aspects of the plot that will drive or be driven by it.

Some of these will be introduced explicitly. Many of them will be introduced implicitly, via foreshadowing. In some stories, not all these elements show up in the first chapter. But everything on the following checklist should be introduced early.

First Chapter Checklist #3: Setting Up the Story

1. Introduce the Story’s Protagonist

We’ve talked before about introducing the protagonist. This is for obvious reasons, since without this person, you don’t have a story. But it’s worth mentioning again one more time here, since your protagonist is your story.

Not only is she the engine that drives the outer plot, she is also the symbolic representative of the deeper inner story of the theme. When you introduce your protagonist in the first chapter, you’re not just hooking readers with an interesting person or explaining who this story is going to be about. You’re also introducing and foreshadowing the entire storyform to come.

This is yet another reason why it is ideal to open with the protagonist, rather than another character. Your protagonist is your theme. The theme frames your story. When you open thematically, you are fulfilling the idea that your story’s “end is in the beginning.”

When you have multiple protagonists, open with the character most representative of the theme—or at least the character who will be most integral to the Climax.

If you’re writing a story, such as a mystery, which is unable to open with its protagonist, it gets tricky from a thematic standpoint. These stories require more creativity in symbolically representing the personal conflict of the protagonist, which is yet to come.

Example From Wayfarer:

Again, I’ll be using examples from the first chapter of my superhero historical Wayfarer, which will be published later this year. As you know by now, my protagonist Will Hardy is introduced as follows, in a quick opening line that hints at his slightly cynical insistence on believing in only what is visible—a belief that will be challenged both realistically and thematically by the end of the story:

In the hamlet of Affery, folk cherished the plague.

Will Hardy was not one of those folk. In all truth, he held no belief whatever in a plague he’d never had sight of in all his life.

2. Create and/or Foreshadow the Main Story Goal

We talked last week about the necessity of opening your first chapter with a scene goal. This is so your character will be moving toward conflict right from the start. But as we also talked about, this opening scene goal may not have any direct relationship to the main story goal.

Depending on the story, it can take the protagonist half the First Act to work his way up to an explicit encounter with the main conflict at the Inciting Event. This doesn’t mean the main conflict shouldn’t be present right from the start. There are two ways you can accomplish this.

1. The Character’s Initial Goal Leads to the Main Story Goal

By the very nature of being the first domino in your plot, your first scene is what creates the causal chain. What happens in this scene causes what happens in the next scene and so on, until the main conflict is officially joined.

For example, in Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy isn’t even on the scene yet in the first chapter, but it is Mrs. Bennet’s goal of getting Mr. Bennet to introduce her daughters to Mr. Bingley that sets everything in motion.

>>Click here to read the Story Structure Database analysis of Pride & Prejudice.

Pride and Prejudice 2005 Donald Sutherland

2. The Character’s Initial Goal Foreshadows the Main Story Goal

Sometimes you will open with a scene that is less directly related to the main conflict and more symbolic of what is to come. In these instances, it’s possible the protagonist doesn’t even yet suspect the main plot goal he will develop later on.

For example, Raiders of the Lost Ark opens without Indiana Jones having any idea the Ark of the Covenant actually exists. Rather, it opens with a mini-episode that foreshadows everything to come: Indy’s pursuit of relics through dangerous and exciting obstacles—in opposition to his unscrupulous nemesis Belloq.

>>Click here to read the Story Structure Database analysis of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

What if Your Story Has No Character Arc

Example From Wayfarer:

Ideally, I like to open stories with both of the above: a direct domino and implied foreshadowing. Wayfarer‘s first scene finds its protagonist Will Hardy without any suspicion whatsoever of his impending adventures. But the job he fails to get in this scene leads directly to the plot encounters in subsequent chapters that eventually cause him to accidentally gain superpowers in the Inciting Event.

The first time we see Will, we find him running at top speed—a subtle bit of foreshadowing indicating the type of superpower he will gain. More than that, though, I wanted to immediately foreshadow the supernatural aspects by indicating all is not as seems. This starts with the first line about the plague in Affery and culminates in Will’s ill-fated conversation with the doctor:

“Well,” Will said, “they say folks around here used to fall down ill, their livestock along with them.”

“Why do you think I’m here? I know all about that.”

“But ’tisn’t the interesting part, is it? The interesting part is the ones who survived were supposed to have found old ailments made well.” He tried to remember. “Umm… things like blindness, swollen joints, even one old farmwife who couldn’t have children.”

“Hah!” Dr. Silas laughed in his face. “Maybe it’s you who doesn’t know. There were others affected. They were not merely cured. They were changed: two-headed calves, dogs that could smell meat cooking at the far side of the village, men too tall, men too short, women too strong. That’s what I want to know about. Tell me about that, why don’t you?”

“Those are mere fables.”

“The plague, boy! Never been a natural discovery like it.” Dr. Silas snapped his fingers. “Or is it the fairies a-dancing? I heard that too. But did I credit it? No.”

“The rector says ’twas the devil’s work.”

“He’s wrong. They’re all wrong. But you—you’re a wonderful disappointment. I was counting on you, and here you are, with no symptoms a’tall. You’re certain your family hadn’t aught strange about them? Extra digits on their hands?”

Will jutted his chin. “Sir. I have no more to say about my family—or the godforsaken plague.”

3. Establish the Thing the Character Wants

Every bit as important as your character’s goal in your first chapter is her Want. The Thing Your Character Wants is not just the story goal. Although it will provide a motive for the story goal, the Want goes deeper than a physical goal. This is something your character Wants on a soul-deep level. It is something she believes will transform her life if she gains it. She may be right, or she may be wrong—but either way, this Want is driven by a mistaken notion about life (the Lie, see below).

In other words, this Want is deeply thematic. If the character’s story goal is the what of the story, the Want is the why. The outer goal is merely a external manifestation of this Want. It is, in some senses, symbolic of the deeper thematic premise at play.

Your character’s main story goal may not be explicit from the opening chapter, but her Want should be.

If, like Jane Eyre, her story goal will be finding a way to be with her true love, her Want might be a deep and abiding craving for love.

>>Click here to read the Story Structure Database analysis of Jane Eyre.

Jane Eyre Edward Rochester

If, like George Bailey, his story goal is to improve the lives of his neighbors, his Want might be a desperate desire to live a full and interesting life.

>>Click here to read the Story Structure Database analysis of It’s a Wonderful Life.

In essence, the Want foreshadows the plot yet to come when the character will begin acting on that desire by forming it into a specific story goal.

Example From Wayfarer:

Will’s Want is to grow beyond the legacy of poverty and shame left him by his workhouse parents and, instead, become respected by society. This Want is present immediately: he is pursuing an initial goal of finding an “opportunity” that will take him to London. This is not his main plot goal—which will end up manifesting as saving the downtrodden of London from the antagonist—but it is the driving motive beneath everything he does both in this first chapter and throughout the story.

I hint at the Want in several ways throughout the story, largely by implication through Will’s continuing shame and grief over his family, but also more directly in explaining why he wants this job so badly—both for himself and his debt-ridden adopted father:

He’d fight to his last fingernail to gain London. The world started there, and the world was the very place he needed to see. “I’ve waited all my life for this opportunity.” And I need it. Tom needs it.

4. Hint at the Lie the Character Believes

The Lie the Character Believes is the foundation of the entire thematic principle. It is the engine driving the change at the heart of your character’s arc. Your theme can almost always be summed up as the Truth at the heart of your story. The best way to identify that Truth is to first identify the opposing Lie.

I’ve talked about the Lie at length elsewhere, so for today, suffice it that you can often bring the Lie onstage right alongside your character’s Want. The two are intrinsically related. The Lie is the reason the character mistakenly believes the Thing He Wants will fix all his problems and make his life perfect.

The earlier you can hint at the Lie, the earlier you will be able to introduce your theme, and the earlier you can frame your story in its theme, the stronger the entire foundation will be.

Example From Wayfarer:

Wayfarer‘s theme is that of respect—what it really means, what it’s really worth, and what someone really has to do to achieve it. Will starts out with the Lie that in order to gain the respect of the world (and, thus, his self-respect), he must put on the show of being wealthy and socially acceptable.

I indicate this primarily by implication through Will’s reasons for desiring to get to London—as well as his short temper when Dr. Silas treats him poorly—but also more explicitly in the chapter’s closing lines when Will meets a gentleman from London who overheard his embarrassing exchange with Dr. Silas:

The man smiled, small at first, then all the way to the crinkled corners of his eyes. “No doubt you’ve heard that regard is something you must earn.” He unbuttoned his coat and withdrew a silver shilling from his waistcoat. “This is what you earn.” He filliped the coin into the air.

5. Establish the Normal World as a Thematic Starting Place

The setting you introduce in the first chapter should never be just a setting. It is a symbolic representation of your character’s internal starting place within the story’s theme. The setting of the First Act represents your character’s Normal World.

This Normal World represents a specific mindset in the story—one which the character will either overcome, champion, or succumb to–depending on what type of arc he is following. Ultimately, the Normal World is a symbol. It can be represented by:

  • A physical setting the character will leave behind in the Second Act (as in Jane Eyre, when she journeys from Lowood School for Girls to Thornfield Hall).

How to Create Walk-On Charactesr Who Are Memorable But Not Too Memorable

  • A physical setting that remains throughout the story but which is altered in some way in the Second Act (as in Monsters, Inc., when Boo’s arrival throws Monstropolis into a panic).

>>Click here to read the Story Structure Database analysis of Monsters, Inc.

boo monsters inc

  • A mindset that changes in some way in the Second Act (as in Secondhand Lions when Walter decides he won’t run away from his uncles’ farm).

>>Click here to read the Story Structure Database analysis of Secondhand Lions.

Secondhand Lions Kyra Sedgwick Haley Joel Osment

Whatever the case, your opening setting should be chosen carefully to represent everything that is about to change in the story to come.

Example From Wayfarer:

Wayfarer opens in the sleepy hamlet of Affery—a backwater place populated by poor farmers—a place that symbolizes everything our ambitious protagonist desperately wants to overcomeThe great thing about Normal Worlds is that they allow you to introduce them casually with little explicit emphasis on their symbolic nature. I introduce Affery as I would any other setting—distributing important details throughout. What’s most important is Will’s attitude toward it, which I’m able to indicate mostly by implication through his desire to escape:

A ride on the mail coach up to London—a letter of introduction to a shipping agent or one of those folks who were always discovering gold in Abyssinia or wherever—those were not opportunities coming to Affery boys every day.

And there Will was, opening his mouth and letting out his temper. He couldn’t have pulled his forelock and shuffled his feet and said, “My humble honor, sir. Anything you say, wise sir”? No. He had to spit it back into the duffer’s face.

6. Foreshadow the First Plot Point

Your opening scene will foreshadow many things—even the Climactic Moment itself sometimes. But the one thing you should try your best to foreshadow within this opening chapter is your First Plot Point.

The First Plot Point is the first major turning point in your story. It is the doorway between the Normal World of the First Act and the Adventure World of the Second Act. It signals the first big shift in your character’s outlook: from here on, she will firmly grasp her story goal and move forward toward it. The First Plot Point is not beginning of the story (obviously), but it is the beginning of the main conflict.

One of the best ways to know your opening scene is the first domino in your story is to ask whether or not it is the first moment that sets up the First Plot Point. For example, in Howl’s Moving Castle the first chapter immediately begins sowing popular legends about Howl—even though the protagonist Sophie won’t meet officially him until the First Plot Point.

>>Click here to read the Story Structure Database analysis of Howl’s Moving Castle.

Howl's Moving Castle

Example From Wayfarer:

By the time Wayfarer reaches its First Plot Point, much will have happened, including Will’s having gained superspeed and having lost what he thought was going to be his great opportunity to become a gentleman. The First Plot Point itself will be the moment that forces him into a life of outlawry in pursuit of the goal of freeing his master from debtor’s prison. This is foreshadowed in several ways in the opening chapter, but most directly by indicating that Will already holds the goal of saving his master (although more as a preventative to debtor’s prison at this point).

Dr. Silas’s bristled cheeks turned red. “You want to rattle the world? That’s well, my boy. So do I—and by heaven and earth, I’ll do it. You don’t believe in the plague? You don’t believe in miracles either, I’ll venture? Well, you’re going to see miracles, boy. And you’re going to see them happening right here, because right here you shall be—and ne’er in London. I, for one, haven’t a use for lads who think they’re princes and forget they’re the charity wards of poor common debtors such as Tom Colville.”

“This isn’t to do with Tom Colville.” Will clenched his fists. “Tom Colville’s the only reason I’m not dead in the ground with my parents.”

“Tom Colville’s one more reason you’re still in Affery and not on your way to London.” Dr. Silas tossed his head, nearly dislodging his wig. He stomped to the barn door and pulled it open, then looked back. “But do tell me if you remember any symptoms.” Then he disappeared inside and slammed the door.

***

Good first chapters are masterpieces of complex clockwork—dozens of tiny pieces working together so seamlessly readers won’t even fully realize what is setup and what is not. Learning how to put every piece in its place requires awareness and discipline. When done right it can be literally half the battle of writing the entire story. Have fun!

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What is the greatest challenge for you in writing your first chapter? Tell me in the comments!

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Daeus Lamb says:

    It’s funny. Your section on a character’s Want sounds almost like an exact copy of an article I wrote recently. 😛

    Yay! Wayfarer is coming out this year! I can’t wait. 🙂

  2. Valerie Harbolovic says:

    Great series on your ultimate first chapter checklist.
    Best wishes,
    Val

  3. So excited about Wayfarer! This is going to be amazing.

  4. I still find a lot of connections between writing good essays and fiction. The introduction of an essay needs to achieve quite a few of the things listed in the first chapter posts shared. Setting up theme, issues, hints at content and conflict. All this helps lead a reader into the rest of the content in a clear and interested way when well communicated.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I think there’s a lot of value for writers in trying different types of writing. It stretches our boundaries, makes us more rounded.

      • Definitely. Its just interesting how many principles apply across different types.
        I have forced myself to write down brief character arcs for the main characters and one minor character so far to help then ground the first chapter.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Character arcs are great for helping us see the entirety of the story at a glance. If we know where the character is going to end up, we know where he needs to begin.

          • Thats the plan, putting it down in writing helps, both for just remembering, but also clarity. I think i previously relied on intuition, which was fine, my written character arcs are simply what i was intuitively writing, but it helps create a firmer foundation especially when writing a longer story.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            Yes, I used to believe the only worthy ideas were the ones I could remember without writing down. I don’t believe that anymore. :p

  5. Tom Youngjohn says:

    Awesome!

  6. Thanks for this. The post has me thinking about my mystery and what my detective wants – other than to solve the case.

  7. Still have great difficulty introducing character and basic story without some form of info dump. When I get rid of the info dump I have a character who opens the story sitting and thinking without action or dialogue. And if I get past that, I have action but not enough character or setting description or theme.

    Aaaargh.

    Thanks for your checklists. Think I’m trying to put in too much of each element instead of a hint of these that are filled out later.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s definitely a tricky balance. It’s taken me twenty years and eleven books to feel like I’m finally *getting* it. I’ve always found beginnings the hardest part.

  8. I look forward to reading Wayfarer! I’m so excited about it. I’ve gotten more and more intrigued as you have used Will and some of the plot points as examples to illustrate these posts, and your podcast. I’m realizing that the theme of my first novel – The one where I’m working hard to add 20,000 new words to as I wrap up my first-ever Camp NaNoWriMo – is fear. I have a lot of work ahead of me, but I’m excited!

  9. Gary Anderson says:

    Thanks for this checklist. It is a big help in reviewing my writing.

    One part really struck home –you wrote: “Personally, I have always found that writing the first draft gets easier almost chapter by chapter.” That is so me.

    After working out my outline, I still find the first chapters hard to write. I have so many thoughts going in my head that I struggle to get going on the start. My workaround is to write the first several chapters in longhand. Yup, pen, and paper. After I get something down, I can go to the computer and start writing the rough draft. It is easier to pare down my writing and eliminate the back story and all that. The later chapters seem to come out quickly.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Definitely. If you do all the work upfront to successfully plant the plot in the first half, the payoff in the second practically writes itself.

  10. Awesome (and vital) advice. Your first chapter will make or break you when it comes to querying agents and editors.

  11. I know this is off topic, but I saw “Infinity War” yesterday 🙂 And a) I remembered that we are still waiting for your “Black Panther”-analysis (or did I miss it?) … and b) have you seen “Infinity War” yet? – I am REALLY curious what you say about this one!!!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I missed seeing Black Panther in theaters, so will have to wait for its VOD release in a couple weeks. I’ve got tickets to see Infinity War this Tuesday. Can’t wait!

  12. They are connected of course … but that would mean we have to wait longer for your post!

  13. I think you should consider making another book/workbook out of this. The first chapter is just so intimidating! There’s SO much you have to get in there without sounding like you’re rattling off facts. I ended up printing out all 3 posts on this, and it’s a lot of pages!

    I know it would definitely help me to have a book and workbook on this. Chapter one seriously feels like half the novel. And I think it’s why a lot of writers quit. Great info, great posts!

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