Why first chapters fail

As a writing coach, I read a lot of work by aspiring authors. The single biggest flaw in their opening chapter is failing to establish a clear character goal, and that makes for a tragically faltering start.

What is your story about? Why does it matter (to the protagonist)? Why should I read on to chapter 2? Believe it or not, you need to answer all three questions powerfully in chapter one, or you don’t have a story that works.

Stories – all stories – are about characters who strive towards something important and encounter numerous setbacks and difficulties along the way. Ultimately, their quest is resolved, either in success or in a failure that is for their betterment.

Writers are often overwhelmed by the concept of goals – they fear, perhaps, that these goals need to be epic in scale and they struggle, therefore, to give them proper consideration. However, unless you have a clear character goal, the story doesn’t matter and it will be woefully unclear what your story is even about.

Your story needs an overall character goal (for your protagonist), but that goal may not be established immediately. Ultimately, John McClane wants to save a group of hostages (including his wife, Holly) from Hans Gruber’s murderous gang, but he doesn’t know that at the start of Die Hard. To begin with, his goal is to make it to the Nakatomi Plaza and meet up with his estranged wife. Once he’s achieved this, his next goal is to have a conversation with her without it turning into a fight. When gunfire erupts, his next goal is to make it out of Holly’s private bathroom before the terrorists find him. When he successfully makes it out and up to an empty floor, his next goal is to get the attention of the police. And so on the movie progresses – a series of goals and setbacks.

The overall goal is to get everyone out of the building alive. Within that objective, McClane has a series of mini-goals that will take him to the resolution. What’s clear is that the protagonist – at every point in the story – wants something specific. Sometimes he succeeds (he makes it to the Nakatomi Plaza) and sometimes he fails (he fights with Holly within minutes of meeting).

One final point on this. While your protagonist’s initial goal may be fairly minor (e.g. making it to a downtown office building), you need a strong hook in your opening chapter; a hook that points to the wider story. In Die Hard, we see Gruber’s gang make their way to Nakatomi at the same time as McClane. We have a clear sense of foreboding, certain that this convoy will spell trouble for our hero.

Ask yourself four key questions when you’re composing the first chapter.

1. Who is my protagonist?

2. What do they want in the opening chapter?

3. Why is it important to them?

4. How is the wider story signposted here?

If you don’t have clear answers to these questions, it’s time to rethink your approach.

Jez Fernandez Written by: