Darcy opens her book by stating everything a first chapter must accomplish:
- grab the reader’s attention
- ground the reader in the setting
- intrigue the reader with a character
- give the reader a puzzle to solve
- set the pace
The first chapter sets the stage for the rest of the book. The first sentence builds on the first page, which builds on the first chapter. And to grab an editor’s attention, all three must shine.
In order to produce that strong first chapter, an author must lay some groundwork. Darcy suggests taking a story idea and brainstorming possible scenes. To decide what kind of story structure might work best, she points readers to the “29 Plot Templates”. Here readers will find brief overviews of standard story structures: the quest, the escape, the underdog, to name a few. “Each plot pattern…require[s] a different set of scenes, emotions, and motivations.” The approach an author takes will affect how possible scenes play out.
Darcy then discusses protagonists with one key element in mind: the character’s pain. “What is the character most afraid of; what could make the character hurt the most? Of course, you must make your character face this very thing.” With the protagonist’s pain pinpointed (and the things she must face to bring about change), the beginnings of the character’s arc emerges.
Adding these three elements together — scene ideas + plot pattern + character arc — equips an author to begin a first draft.
Because I hadn’t yet committed hours and hours to writing at this point, there was plenty of freedom to play with my ideas: adding scenes, deleting them, changing a character’s motivation or the type of story I wanted to tell. As someone who’s written a few books and many more “trunk manuscripts,” I appreciated this experimental phase. It’s something I need to do more of before my drafting begins.
I consider myself a “plotster” (or “planster”, as Darcy would say) — someone who doesn’t fully plot a story but also doesn’t fly by the seat of her pants. Darcy says her approach might feel overly rigid to pantsters or too loosey-goosey to plotters. For me, her system felt like the perfect fit.
“The function of a first draft is to find your story. The function of the next few drafts is to find the best way to tell that story.”
To that end, Darcy spends much of her book showing authors how to experiment with different approaches, such as the type of sentence structures an author can use to start a book. Darcy identifies twelve types of opening sentences, gives examples of each, and then tries each type for her own novel-in-progress. In studying her opening from different angles, she shows readers what might best work for their own book.
The one thing I can count on when starting a new manuscript is the feeling I’ve never written a book before. Each of my stories has to find its own way. As I planned and then drafted during NaNoWriMo, START YOUR NOVEL was an invaluable guide.