Setup Is Not Stasis: How to Write a Gripping First Chapter
By David G. Brown
Whether you’re submitting a manuscript sample to a literary agent or a publisher, the strength of your first sentence, first page, and first chapter is vital. At this early stage, you must convince readers that your story is worth their time.
Story versus context
Back in 2018, the Darling Axe launched a literary agent interview series called Book Broker. To date, we’ve heard from over a hundred agents. What they have to say about chapter-one misfires aligns with what we frequently see in developmental edits and the hundreds of contest entries we screen each year.
"I often see writers clearing their throats—writing out information about a character’s background or past or over-explaining their situation instead of trusting their reader to piece things together for themselves."
—Tim Wijcik, LGR Literary Agency
When a first chapter isn’t working, there is one resoundingly common issue: the author is showcasing context rather than story.
What’s the difference? The story is bound up in the focal character’s moment-to-moment experience of each scene, whereas narrative context is everything that surrounds or informs the story, including worldbuilding and backstory.
"A common snag is when there is too much telling and summary in the opening chapters and writers try and cram in too much information without letting the story get going and unfold organically."
—Jill Marsal, Marsal Lyon Literary Agency
Narrative context is a powerful tool—it helps bring depth to a story and, if wielded effectively, allows you to build a sense of participation in your readers. However, when the showcase is dominated by context rather than story, readers are kept at arm’s length rather than invited in.
What is narrative context?
Narrative context is anything other than the focal character’s sensory and psychological experience. Context can take the form of summary or explanation. Sometimes it’s a flashback. Sometimes it’s a “convenient” scene that serves to inform readers of what the author thinks is essential background information rather than kicking off a consequential sequence of events. Sometimes narrative context appears in exposition, sometimes in the focal character’s interiority, and sometimes even in dialog.
Context via exposition
This is when the narrator explains or summarizes anything other than what is happening in the focal character’s moment-to-moment experience of the scene. It’s like the author is pausing the scene to bring readers up to speed.
Context via interiority
Interiority refers to anything that is going on inside the focal character’s head. Sometimes interiority allows readers to experience the play-by-play thought processes that are authentic to this character, but it can also include summaries and explanations that (again) allow the author to bring readers up to speed on a particular point.
Context via dialog
This is the most glaring form of narrative context—when a conversation is stuffed with info for the reader’s benefit, especially when it’s something the other speaker already knows. Ideally, dialog develops character and advances plot; it’s not dialog’s job to deliver context.
Experience versus explanation
"I want to feel like I'm a part of this world, so when you stop to take a page and half to tell me about the inner workings of things, it doesn't feel like I'm living it."
—Beth Marshea, Ladderbird Literary Agency
A story worth reading is a story worth experiencing, at least vicariously. It is the protagonist’s sensory and cognitive experience (as rendered into scenes by the author) that transports readers into the story world. And it is the compelling nature of a protagonist struggling toward a goal that keeps readers turning pages. Blocks of summary and explanation are an obstacle to rendered experience. While narrative context plays an important role, it’s critical to consider how far you want to pull readers away from a scene by either pausing to explain an aspect of world history or by jumping into another scene altogether via flashback.
As Beth Marshea notes, too much context means she doesn’t feel like she’s living it. Your readers should be living the story on every page. This is especially important in your opening chapter.
When context shines
Context plays a very important role in fiction and narrative nonfiction. It adds depth to the characters, the setting, and the conflict. Context is also your best tool for creating in readers a sense of participation. The trick lies in subtlety. Resist the temptation to summarize and explain. Instead, focus all your clarity on the focal character’s sensory and psychological experience and allow narrative context to be a question mark, at least in the beginning. Then, sprinkle hints about context throughout the manuscript and trust your intuitive readers to pay attention and put the pieces together. This is where a reader’s sense of participation comes into play. In this way, your readers become detectives, and it is their job to follow your hints and clues until they uncover the contextual mystery. When narrative context isn’t spelled out, reading becomes a process of discovery.
“Reader context” versus “POV context”
Some hints, clues, and clarifications about narrative context work better than others. The trick is to keep snippets of context directly relevant to the focal character’s moment-to-moment experience of each scene. In other words, if it feels like a clarification that could be uttered by the focal character about what is happening in the scene (as an aside), then it’s “POV context.” However, if a clarification feels explanatory in a way that’s meant to fill readers in, then it’s “reader context.” POV context can help build character and voice, whereas reader context tends to interrupt the scene and slow the pace.
Setup versus stasis
Many novels begin with stasis—this is the protagonist’s regular life before it has been disrupted by an inciting incident. Stasis should have a source of tension, even if the main trajectory has not yet been established. Ideally, a stasis scene will still include action toward a goal of some kind, and in a way that demonstrates the protagonist’s personality and motivations. Even in stasis, experience is key. Readers need to be transported into the story world and given a reason to stay. This is the author’s opportunity to show the protagonist’s authentic life leading up to the disruption/inciting incident. Ideally, this doesn’t involve scene-breaking dumps of summary, explanation, or convenient conversation.
Many novels skip stasis and open after the inciting incident. Moby Dick is a famous example. To pull this off, forgo any early summary or explanation about whatever set the protagonist in motion. Give readers hints about the inciting incident and otherwise allow them to assemble that picture for themselves.
Based on feedback from the agents we’ve talked to and all the first pages and chapters we’ve reviewed, the most common reason a manuscript opening falls flat is excess context. In some manuscripts, this issue clears up by the second or third chapter. However, in other manuscripts it persists as an overreliance on telling instead of showing. Indeed, showing is about showcasing experience and telling is about showcasing context. To delve deeper into this topic, please check out our other articles: Writer Brain Versus Reader Brain, We are Dream Weavers, and Showing IS Telling, but with Style.
Lastly, another issue we see frequently in manuscript first pages and first chapters is overused openings—scenes that writers lead with so frequently that they have become cliché. This includes, for example, a character waking up or checking themselves out in a mirror on page one. For more on this topic, click here.
David G Brown is an award-winning short fiction writer, and his debut novel is represented by the Donaghy Literary Group. He has published poetry, fiction, and nonfiction in magazines and literary journals, and he volunteers for the Malahat Review where he interviews writing judges and screens contest entries. He holds a BA in anthropology (UVic) and an MFA in creative writing (UBC). As an editor, he pays special attention to structure, relationship arcs, and voice. David lives in Victoria, Canada, in the traditional territory of the Esquimalt and Songhees Nations.