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A Better Chapter One?

I've recently acquired the assistance of a mentor/professor to help with my writing. He has made the suggestion to change my Chapter 1, or rather, push it back to a later chapter. It's doable, but the intention of my first chapter was for shock-value, to hopefully grab the reader's attention with action (violence) sprinkled with mystery. I posted a rough (coarse sandpaper rough) version of Ch 1 in the critiques and it is much different now. I'd like to sum them up and see which one sounds like a better first chapter.

Option A)
A homeless man with a kind, helpful heart is attacked in his sleep, has his eye plucked out and replaced with a magical stone that allows his attacker to control his body. He is trapped in his mind and starts to lose it.

Option B)
A down-on-his-luck archeologist gives some background on the wild, un-civilized, territories where he is searching ancient ruins for a rare, magical resource. (a light to moderate amount of info-dumping and some reflections on his deceased parents). He finds something unique buried in the ruins but has negative connotations linked to it.

The chapters combined are just under 6K words. I'll be more than happy to post them in critiques. Option A starts with the homeless man treating an eye infection (pretty gross). Option B starts with 5 paragraphs and 300 words of expositional world-building.


I wonder what your professor/mentor is a professor of? And how successful are they?

Cause professors tend to go with colleges and universities where conformity is a better tact than creativity. There are many who can point to writing and say where it breaks the rules and should be different, but art sometimes breaks the rules. Which is not to say this mentor is not useful, but all such people need to be measured on their own merits.

I recently had opportunity to get a review from one who was one of my very first reviewers many years ago. And while then, I thought very highly of their comments, and some of them I still live by, the stuff he said this time around made me wonder at his limitations. I was like art matters, I am sad you cannot see that. Its not that his comments are not fair, if he prefers stories with much more attention on details like food items and histories of hilltops, I am just not the author for him. For me, the world is unknown by the MC, and so it is a slow process of discovery. They don't know why there is a ruined tower on a hill, they only its a good place to stay to ward off the wind. Maybe in time they will learn its place in history, but that is somewhere further down the road. The journey is one you are meant take through the experiences of the characters in it, but if you need it all laid out beyond what the character knows, the style is not going to suit you.

I still think very highly of his comments, but I feel I am also aware that what does not fit may not really be a problem with the story, just that all stories are not for everyone.
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toujours gai, archie
These are candidates for Ch.1, right? So, how does the reader know this homeless man has a kind heart? We haven't seen anything of him yet. Nor do we know anything about the attacker. I sounds like you're trying for some reader sympathy here, but it takes time to build that sympathy. Perhaps that's why the prof suggested moving the scene further along. Remember, it doesn't need to be the whole chapter. If you consider the structure of your book from the perspective of scenes (or beats) rather than chapters, it can become easier to shuffle the deck.

An archeologist finding something extraordinary is fine as an opening as well. Forget about the background stuff (to whom is he giving this information?), and only put in what's required to narrate the discovery and his reaction to it, and you can have an opening just as dramatic. Maybe even more so, since the first scenario involves a sleeping person being a victim, which isn't much action or drama, just pathos.

Either way, everything depends on how it's written. Either can be exciting or dull. But both, imo, could use some space for engaging the reader with the character.
And I understand that. For clarity, he is a professor of psychology and is a fantasy/sci-fi reader.

So, how does the reader know this homeless man has a kind heart?

The two-sentence line was for summary. If you went to look at the posting in critiques, then I must apologize. I've added a lot more to the beginning of that draft. For a less summarized summary. He helps a lady with an eye infection (tries to anyway), goes to see a friendly tavernkeep, but gets run off for soliciting before he can catch a meal (no food today). It's not much, only 1000 words lol, but I felt it made him a little more open to the reader's sympathy before he gets attacked and turned into a meat puppet.

Option B could work. I could get in there an clean house. Chopping up the exposition and making it feel more natural (have it character discussion or such). I've done it before. If it comes down to it, I'll make a full rewrite of option B, but I'd rather not have to go so hard on it.


Myth Weaver
I would go with the second option - but ramp it up. Add in a sense of menace - strange characters hanging about the dig site, play up the rumors of a curse or a cult, then tie all that in bit by bit with the info-dumpy stuff. Speaking of which, spread it out into bite sized chunks: this symbol on that door brings a gruesome bit of history to the archaeologist's mind.


toujours gai, archie
Since the homeless guy was your first choice, what did you like about it? Any misgivings or criticism of what you have?

IOW, ignoring all of us, how would you improve the story?
Since the homeless guy was your first choice, what did you like about it? Any misgivings or criticism of what you have?
I liked it because I felt it was gripping and impactful. He's the underdog, and seeing him make his comeback is, for lack of a better word, glorious. And his low point, my guy, I was crying. I'm writing this crap and it was making me cry. (Not chapter 1, it's much later)
IOW, ignoring all of us, how would you improve the story?
Honesty, and this is probably what I'll be doing anyway, but adding another 1000 words or so for more character development, scene/world building, etc.

What's the rest of the story like? Do you keep up the promise of violence you make by showing it in the first chapter?
I get the question, I understand it, but there's a few more promises in the chapter other than violence. Imagine a room filled with 10 toddlers and 1 of them was throwing a tantrum. That 1 kid is going to draw more attention than the other 9. The answer is yes, though, but it's meaningful violence. Death with a purpose. It's just not in every chapter.


My advice is usually, start at the moment things change. And blood on the floor is not a bad way to start.

I cannot answer where in your story that is, but I will stick with it. Look for that, and start your story there.
I agree with the no info-dumps in chapter 1 sentiment. The reader doesn't care enough about the world to want to read any background information. If it needs to be told, do it later. Note, that is different from worldbuilding. You can (and should) worldbuild in chapter 1. But only so far as is needed to make the reader understand what's happening.

Other than that, I think both options can work as a first chapter. My main thought about openings is that you probably want to start small and with your main protagonist. The readers will latch onto the first view-point character they come across, and think they're reading this character's story. If the story is about someone else, then they'll get thrown out of the story. Unless you call it a prologue, then anything goes pretty much.

As for small, I don't mean that in terms of number of words. I mean that you will want to focus on what's happening to a character, and the immediate consequences of that. The reader doesn't know your world, he doesn't know why you have a continent spanning conflict or why there is a battle going on, or why a character is mourning someone's death. Therefore, these kind of things will have limited emotional impact. There's a reason these kind of scenes are at the end of stories, it's because the importance of these events becomes clear through the story. So pick something small, and relatively self-contained and start with that.

Like the others here mentioned, you know what that is best. So go with that.
Main character in chapter 1 is great advice; it's also a suggestion I didn't take in chapter 1 of Eve of Snows, and I fretted it! I wanted to do it, but it just didn't work for me. This turned out well, I think, in part because people did connect to that character which helped punch the ending of the book a notch or two compared to if the story started with the lead.

Lead with the MC unless there's a good reason not to.

Mad Swede

Both I and my editor would tell you the same thing. The opening chapter needs to grab the readers attention and pull them into the story so that the reader wants to go on reading. Done properly, your readers should get so drawn in that they read the first 2 or 3 chapters almost without stopping. That doesn't mean you need an opening scene which is violent or even action based. An info dump can work brilliantly provided it is well written, and there are good examples in crime literature.


Article Team
Regardless of if you want to start with action or something more subdued, you have to give the reader something to stand firm on and a reason to continue. What I mean by something firm to stand is sometimes jumping into the middle of things can be a disorienting, and there needs to be enough there to center the reader and give them a bearing. Maybe that's what's happening with your mentor. Because the direct opposite of that is the info dump so there's absolutely no confusion.

At the end of the day, IMHO, if you're unsure, go with what your gut tells you. Now, you may still be wrong, but for me, I'd rather make a mistake by following my instincts and reasoning than blindly follow a suggestion and succeed. I can learn from my mistake, but it's tougher to learn from a success that I simply fell into, because I don't understand why it works, so it's unlikely I can duplicate it consistently.

A. E. Lowan

Forum Mom
Chapter One should accomplish one thing, and I can even set it to music. It should make the reader start asking questions.

What's this? What's this?
There's conflict everywhere.
What's this? What's this?
Suddenly I care!

A reader who doesn't care about what's happening in very short order is a reader who's going to put the book down and probably not pick it back up. Make the reader care. If you were caring so much about this character that you were crying for him, so will the reader. I'd say you're on the right track.
It depends entirely on how these chapters are written. If option A is just "check out this dramatic shocking thing!" with no context, it's boring; the reader has no reason to care. If it's given in a way that gives context and gives us reason to be interested in this guy, it works as an opener. If chapter B is dry exposition without an engaging character or any stakes, it's boring (not just for a first chapter, but for being in the book at all). If it's tied to an interesting character and a fun narrative voice, it's a good opener.

both of these options could be good or bad choices depending on how they're written, so it's impossible to answer based on what you've given us.