Seven Key First Chapter Questions

Seven Key First Chapter QuestionsAbigail Perry’s Seven Key First chapter Questions are touchstones. They apply not only to opening chapters, but to every chapter and every scene in the novel.

We’ve looked at opening chapters before, but Perry’s seven questions, from a presentation in 2023, takes a different approach.

Why the opening chapter?

Perry focuses on this for the Big Picture. The opening chapter sets so many expectations. And as a reader, I frequently fail to get past Chapter One. That’s the challenge every author has to pass.

The Seven Questions

  1. What kind of story is this?
    We’re talking genre. Not the commercial genre of how it’s marketed but the content genre.
  2. What is it really about?
    The genre may be action and adventure, it may be sci-fi. But the story is really about a shift in World View, alongside a coming-of-age. The headline may be spaceships and the fall of empires, but the story is really about the distrust of authority and the corrupting effect of power. Guess who returned to Dune recently?
  3. Who is telling the story?
    This is our Point of View character; who is narrating? The protagonist of the Great Gatsby is Jay Gatsby, but the unreliable narrator is Nick Caraway. Everything is filtered through his point of view, not Gatsby’s. Those points of view are dramatically different. One is a patchwork of half-truths, biases, prejudices and lies. The other is a veiled, enigmatic and incomplete portrait.
  4. Which character(s) should the reader care about most?
    In Pride and Prejudice (collect a sticker) this is Lizzie Bennett, our archetypal romantic heroine. We get to care about Darcy as his true character is revealed. In A Christmas Carol, Dickens makes us care about the unlikable Scrooge. In The Talented Mr Ripley, Highsmith makes us care about the amoral sociopath Ripley.
  5. When and where does the story take place?
    This is a genre and setting question that we might think is obvious but must be made clear to the reader. Even if the when and where are carefully and deliberately obscured or misdirected. Los Angeles, 2049? Hampshire, 1805? London, 1984? Neverland? Oz? Narnia?
  6. How should the reader feel about what’s happening?
    What emotional response are we trying to evoke? Curiosity, obviously; make them turn the page. But within the story itself? Nostalgia? Fear? Wonder? That cozy, warm-blanket anticipation of a meet-cute moment?
  7. Why should reader care what happens next?
    How do we get the reader emotionally invested? Enough to turn the page, continue to chapter two and beyond? Because without that investment – a character, a goal, a conflict – the book slides onto the Did Not Finish pile.

Beyond Chapter One

I’d argue these seven questions apply to every scene as well as every chapter in the novel.

  • What kind of story?
    Are we consistent to our genre and the expectations we set at the beginning? Subverting, mixing or drifting around genres will disappoint more readers than it attracts.
  • It’s really about…?
    Are we sticking to our characters and themes? Does each scene and chapter advance those elements?
  • Who?
    Do we have a consistent point of view and characterisation? Large or small cast, this is a key aspect to get right.
  • Which characters?
    It’s easy to lose focus. A stellar supporting character can overwhelm the protagonist. Uhtred in The Last Kingdom series is such a jackass, I wanted him killed off so I could spend more time with King Alfred. Scene by scene, you can also lose focus on the main characters.
  • When and where?
    There’s nothing worse than skipping around locations and timelines so the reader has no idea where they are. Mystery plots and sub-plots excepted, most readers don’t want to navigate your incomplete and badly sign-posted route. Don’t leave them frustrated because your text is vague or jumps around all over the place.
  • How do you feel?
    What’s the emotional core of the scene or chapter? What do you want the reader to take away at the end? If the reader feels nothing, you’ve missed the point. Readers want to feel engaged.
  • Who cares?
    What is the reader going to carry into the next scene or chapter? What did they learn? What questions around plot or character do they have to take forward? Why does it matter?

What’s the difference?

The Scene Cards discussed in a previous post covered the more structural approach of Goal, Motivation, Conflict and Resolution. Perry’s seven questions place more focus on the reader; their perception, feelings and responses to the story. While you certainly need the G, M, C and R to make a story, the seven questions will shape the reader’s response.

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