On Writing the First Three Chapters

Crazy as it may seem, I don’t worry about the first three chapters. Wait, I take that back. I do worry. I worry about them a lot. But at the same time, I’m not too worried about them.

See, the thing is, and I hope Jaye is reading this…

I almost never keep the first draft of my first three chapters.

“What?” you cry. “How is that possible? They are the foundations to your plot! They set up everything that will come, and has most recently been, in your work!”

And that is an excellent and valid point. To which I respond, “Yes, but since you wrote them first, most likely, I bet they’re a pretty bad example of your writing style, in comparison to later chapters.”

Your later chapters are almost always better, at least in terms of the first draft, because you…

  1. Know your characters better
  2. Know your plot better
  3. Know the overall purpose of your work better (a.k.a. theme or thesis)

So what do I do? I force myself to move past chapters one through three. When writing a first draft, or even a second draft, I focus on the end goals: Can I finish this work? Will it accomplish the themes, plot twists, emotions, and subtle messages I’m trying to impart?

What I really obsess about is the ending. It is the ending, I feel, that defines the beginning. To me, the ending is that sometime-heartbreaking goodbye to a friend. And when we say goodbye to someone, what is one of the first things we start to do? Reminisce about how that friendship began. We want to remember where we came from. That is how I know where my beginning should start. I need to know the ending before I can really understand and write the beginning.

Perhaps that doesn’t make any sense. So here is something else that you should always do with your beginning: Start with action. In fact, you should always…

Start with the action that jumpstarts all the other actions in your work.

This typically means meeting the hero for our heroine in romance. Or our detective finding our murder victim in a mystery. Or something catastrophic that will end the world as we know it in a science fiction.

So once you’ve finished writing the ending, go back to the beginning. Does the beginning make sense, in terms of the ending? Does the ending correlate/follow from the beginning? If not, you need to rewrite those first three chapters.

Does this help? Have I made any sense at all? I wrote this post in reponse to a question Jaye had about his first three chapters, both how to do them, and how to get past them. So if you have suggestions for Jaye, let us know in the comments.

19 thoughts on “On Writing the First Three Chapters

  1. This absolutely makes sense. The book I just finished, Darin Strauss's More Than It Hurts You, showed traces of the ending in the beginning. The two poles of the story matched up nicely, and I could see that Strauss had at least tinkered with the beginning after he had written the ending.

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  2. This absolutely makes sense. The book I just finished, Darin Strauss’s More Than It Hurts You, showed traces of the ending in the beginning. The two poles of the story matched up nicely, and I could see that Strauss had at least tinkered with the beginning after he had written the ending.

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  3. Oh, it was a good thing, because it was well done. I could infer that–going into details here–there was some foul play on the wife’s part and that her husband would one day find out, but I didn’t know what specific consequences the couple and their child would experience. I was so eager to know, I eventually flipped to the ending for a hint of the story’s destination. I NEVER do that. I normally hate to have the ending spoiled even in the smallest way. This beginning just propelled me right into the book.

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  4. Oh, it was a good thing, because it was well done. I could infer that–going into details here–there was some foul play on the wife’s part and that her husband would one day find out, but I didn’t know what specific consequences the couple and their child would experience. I was so eager to know, I eventually flipped to the ending for a hint of the story’s destination. I NEVER do that. I normally hate to have the ending spoiled even in the smallest way. This beginning just propelled me right into the book.

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  5. I must confess I hyperventilated at this post. I agonize and fret over the first three chapters until I drive myself crazy. It’s just as difficult as my agony over where the begin the novel and whether that beginning I brainstorm is actually any good.

    *GGG*

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  6. I must confess I hyperventilated at this post. I agonize and fret over the first three chapters until I drive myself crazy. It’s just as difficult as my agony over where the begin the novel and whether that beginning I brainstorm is actually any good.

    *GGG*

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  7. Jolie – That’s something every author strives for, to propel the reader into the book. I hope I’m as successful with my own work!

    Evangeline – It’s so hard to get past those first three chapters. I’ve re-written my first chapter at least four times, and I’m still not sure if it works the way I want it to. But at some point, I’ve got to write the rest of the story, otherwise, what’s the point? Why agonize over the first three chapters if I never get to the remaining twenty (or whatever number it turns out to be)? I feel your pain, believe me.

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  8. Jolie – That’s something every author strives for, to propel the reader into the book. I hope I’m as successful with my own work!

    Evangeline – It’s so hard to get past those first three chapters. I’ve re-written my first chapter at least four times, and I’m still not sure if it works the way I want it to. But at some point, I’ve got to write the rest of the story, otherwise, what’s the point? Why agonize over the first three chapters if I never get to the remaining twenty (or whatever number it turns out to be)? I feel your pain, believe me.

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  9. That is true. But I can be overly hard on myself to the point where I can’t move past those three chapters even if I have an outline of where I want the story to go.

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  10. That is true. But I can be overly hard on myself to the point where I can’t move past those three chapters even if I have an outline of where I want the story to go.

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  11. Uh oh. Well, at some point, you have to give yourself a break and move on. I don’t know how to inspire you to get past the first three chapters, but I do know that one day you will get sick of re-writing them. I hope it happens sooner rather than later, so you can finish your work!

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  12. Uh oh. Well, at some point, you have to give yourself a break and move on. I don’t know how to inspire you to get past the first three chapters, but I do know that one day you will get sick of re-writing them. I hope it happens sooner rather than later, so you can finish your work!

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