First chapters are hard to pull off.
You need to introduce your protagonist, your story’s setting, and the beginning of your plot in an engaging way that entices people to keep reading. This last point gets hammered on again and again by editors and agents, which can make writing the first chapter seem imposing.
You may wonder whether it’s really worth it to throw yet another element into the first chapter.
At first you might assume it’s optional to include theme. I’d like to propose, however, that a strong thematic presence is far from extraneous and can actually be the missing piece you need to enhance a first chapter.
Theme Generates Excellent First Chapters
Few things intrigue as much as a good theme. Theme gives the reader a reason to care about your story, because it correlates fiction to the real world. The biggest mistake I often observe in newer authors’ first chapters is that they focus on an action sequence that’s supposed to be compelling. It might be compelling in film, where the audience could actually see the battle or gunfight, but in a text-based story it doesn’t work because readers have no reason to care about what’s happening.
Now, there are certainly other ways you can make the audience care. Creating a sympathetic and interesting character who grabs the reader’s attention can do a lot of legwork for you in this area. But when I sit down to read a book, it is the glimpse of a strong theme in the first chapter that draws me in. Here’s why this is the case, and how you can accomplish this with your own novel.
Tactic #1: Displaying Your Character’s Internal Need
The axis of a story’s theme is the character arc. The positive character arc, which tends to be the most popular type today, is centered on a basic premise: the main character has a flaw, and that flaw creates an internal need. Maybe the main character struggles with feeling insecure, or maybe with impatience. Either way, in most stories, the protagonist should have a conspicuous flaw.
Think about the people you’re close to. Why is your friendship so strong? I’d wager that a large part of it is due to the fact that you both still care about each other even though you know each other’s flaws. You’re honest about how you’re insecure, how you struggle, and how you often fail, and he reciprocates without rejecting you. Deep friendships are forged when two people are willing to open up about themselves and their fears, worries, and struggles.
It’s the same way in storytelling.
Exposing a character’s flaws makes him much more relatable—which in turn forms a connection with the reader. Just like we long for intimacy with other people, we desire a certain degree of intimacy with characters. We want an opportunity to watch others wrestle with the flaws we have and be able to empathize with them. If you can portray this effectively in a first chapter, you won’t have trouble engaging readers.
Usually the first chapter should consist of a characteristic moment designed to show the core of who the protagonist is. Weave the character’s internal need deeply into this scene. Are you writing a story about an insecure character who needs to find confidence? Then put him in a situation where he naturally feels insecure to manifest the nature of his self-doubt. Are you writing a story about a character who needs to learn patience? If so, place your character in a position where she needs to wait for something and capitalize on this to reveal her impatience.
Be careful not to go overboard though. If you only highlight a bunch of flaws in your protagonist, the reader probably won’t like your protagonist. You need to depict some of the protagonist’s virtues as well to create a truly sympathetic character.
The principle is clear: show the audience a character’s flaw, and the audience will become more interested in the character—as well as realize that you’re trying to tell an entertaining and meaningful story. This combination can do wonders for a first chapter.
Tactic #2: Signposting the Presence of a Theme
Signposting means including something in the first chapter to indicate that your story will be tackling a meaningful theme. It’s the equivalent of emblazoning your book with a neon sign that says: “Look! There’s a theme here! Keep reading to discover it!”
Signposting a theme does have some dangers though. Generally, the best themes in literature have a certain amount of subtlety. They aren’t flashy and in-your-face. Readers can only tolerate so many neon signs in a story. However, there’s an opposing pitfall as well: making a theme so subtle that it’s undetectable.
That’s why you want to signpost your story’s theme early on.
Christian producer Richard Ramsey explains the importance of this in a blog post discussing the theme of his film, The Song. Most of the film centers on the similarities between the protagonist and the biblical King Solomon, and it opens with a montage about the protagonist’s father, who happens to be named “David King.” Ramsey writes the following about the scene:
“Pretty much everyone got…and was intended to get…that David King is King David. Congratulations. And, an annoying amount of people reacted to this with a sarcastic, ‘Oh, that’s really subtle.’ While it is admittedly not at all subtle, given the vast disparity of biblical literacy amongst audience members, filling your film with scripture references is like conducting an Easter egg hunt for kids from two to twelve years old.
Sometimes you have to put the big, fat, neon, L’eggs pantyhose egg right in the open grass in order to not only give the toddlers a chance to find an egg, but to demonstrate to them that there is even an egg hunt going on in the first place.”
Fiction today has a tendency to be shallow and lack strong themes, which is why this type of signposting is crucial. Sometimes you need to drop obvious hints at the beginning of a story so that the audience knows you’re tackling a meaningful subject and will search for the subtler hints you’ll be scattering throughout the rest of the book.
What can this signposting look like? It could be well-placed symbolism like Ramsey used for The Song. It could be a mini debate between two characters about an issue related to your story’s theme. It could simply be portraying your character’s flaw so potently that it becomes clear to the audience that the story will focus on that character trying to overcome his flaw. How this is handled will depend on your type of story. The important thing is that you should consciously include elements that will clue your audience in to the fact that your story has a strong theme.
Teaching and Delighting
Show the audience your protagonist’s flaw and signpost your story’s theme and you’ll be well on your way to a gripping first chapter. As the poet Horace phrased it many millennia ago, the goal of literature is to teach and delight. By featuring theme in your first chapter, you not only set the story up to have a strong, meaningful message, but you also make it more delightful, because few things entertain as much as a good story with a purpose. First chapters can be tough. But theme can tie all the elements of your first chapter together to create a coherent whole.