After editing hundreds of stories, this remains one of the biggest challenges in prose that I see. How to engage a reader through the scene from page one. So often in speculative fiction (and even literary fiction) the first scene doesn't accomplish all the writer needs it to do. Here are a few tips from last night's edit that can help you elevate your first chapters to the next level.
Start with a problem. Make your first sentence outline a problem. Something wrong with the character, the scene, or the world. It can even outline a goal like "And with that, I emptied my last canteen of water." Yes, scene description is important, but establish tension and uncertainty FIRST, then slow down to outline the scene where the tension is happening (but be sure to only describe what's natural to the flow of the story).
Scene first, information second. This is something I struggle with. I've built a vivid story world and tons of fascinating aspects of the character, and I want to show the reader all these characteristics first. Remember, characteristics like size, hair style, and clothing are just that, the reader needs to see CHARACTER in that first scene. Show your hero making a difficult decision before describing what they're wearing.
Treat Interiority like Dialogue. Being able to experience a character's interior thoughts is one of the things that makes prose special. However, just like explanatory dialogue (when a character explains something to another character for the sake of exposition), explanatory interior thoughts can also be a risk. Ensure that you're being true to what the character would really think when you get into their thoughts, and GIVE THEIR THOUGHTS VOICE. Let the way their thoughts are reported have personality and flow.
Simplify sentences. We all remember base clauses from grammar school--the old subject and verb combo that forms the spine of a sentence. The word choice on any sentences base clause is key for clarity and flow. As you near your final draft, go through your story and identify EACH base clause for EACH sentence and ask, "Is this the strongest organization and word choice I can use?" Your writing will sing after that!
Curious to learn more? Check out our video edit from last night were we edit two first chapters: