First Page, First Chapter

As writers, we must think of our Readers as amnesia victims, who are lost in an empty void.  Whether they are in a white, smoky box or a dark, cold pit depends upon their personalities or some recent event in their lives.  As soon as they open to the first page they are lost, blanked, know nothing, see nothing, feel nothing, until we tell or show them.    (Notice how I’m hammering the nothing, empty void bit.) Whether you lead them from the dark to the light or from the light to the dark is up to you, but you must lead them.

It is natural that the patient/Reader finds this state of affairs uncomfortable.  No one likes to be lost, out-of-control or naive.  Unless we cure this condition quickly the Reader will abandon the material in disgust.  A Reader, above all other people, wants to be with the IN-crowd.  Perhaps, you have noticed how some TV series start with an intro.  This is no accident; its purpose is to orientate the viewer for what is about to happen:  Star Trek/outer space 2365, Mayberry/ NC 1965, CSI present day crime/USA.

Nine out ten patients/Readers upon waking up into nothingness will ask the same first question:   Where am I?  And so we have the first of the 5 W’s.


Where: tropics/ mountains/ desert, inside/outside, downtown/country.  Included in this where business might be the weather/temperature, visual objects, such as trees, houses, people, roads, bodies of water, temples/ bars and well known landmarks.  If we are inside, there will be furniture, windows and doors.  Sounds and smells might also give clues.  Are we near the kitchen or, phew, closer to the bathroom?

When:  Readers also want to know what time it is.  This is not an unreasonable question, since works of prose may be now, then or tomorrow.  Of course, you could be blunt and just give a date.  Or you could indicate the time with language, clothing, transportation, etc.

Who:   Naturally, there will be characters in your story; although, they may not be people.  You could write about a talking horse, but even then the horse will take on an anthropomorphic quality.  Of vital importance will be the relationship between Reader and POV.

What:  Will be the event or happening that lures the Reader in.  Hopefully, the WHAT will be more interesting than an old woman knitting, while listening to Perry Como’s Greatest Hits.

Why:  Last, but certainly not least, is the theme of your piece.  The Reader will, of course, want to know why they should bother reading any further.  Why does this mean anything to me?


Author’s Note:  How quickly should these 5 W’s be answered?  RAPIDO!!!   As I said before, Readers do not like to be left in a state of ignorance.  It’s insulting, unbearable, and discombobulating to the psyche. You can NOT expect them to tolerate this illnes for very long.


As an example let’s take my last post, ‘Abandon Ship.’  Did I answer the 5 W’s?  (I promise you that I did not plan to dissect Abandon Ship this way.  I’ve just been writing so long that I naturally include the 5 W’s.  Probably, comes from my background in journalism.)

Who:  Abandon Ship is written in the first person, so maybe it’s me, but here I take on the personality of a sailor.  Well, that’s fiction for ya, ye scurvy dog.

Where:  I’m on a boat in the midst of a storm–in the metaphorically sense.  In reality, I’m hunched over a computer board.

When:  The language or ‘color’ of the piece says 1700-1800’s.  A vast time frame, I’ll grant you, but, at least, some idea is given.  On the other hand, I write about modern day gizmos, so we have a bit of comical contrast, some similes and metaphors, if  you  will.

What:  Is the difficulties in the sailor’s ability to navigate the cyber world.

Why:  Is an attempt at humor.  The most important theme for me is the gobbled-goop terms used in dealing with new electronic toys.  Why, I asked myself, do the geeks use terms like WEP key, when they could just say:  Look on the bottom of your DSL for a secret number. DUH-HUH.

And there we have it: a short story that still manages to answer the 5 W’s.  It’s not so tough, but very important!!!


9 thoughts on “First Page, First Chapter

  1. Good show! The journalism five Ws are an excellent model to follow. Of course, you don’t have to cram them all into the first paragraph or even the first page, but I agree. Keep the poor, lost reader dangling too long, and you’re likely to lose him/her/it/them.

    • Thanks, Big C. Perhaps the title is not clear. I was thinking of the first page of a short story and the first chapter of a novel, which is more than enough room, I think.

      As always, everyone should know that most of these ‘notes to self’ posts are my…..ahem, personal ‘cheat sheets.’ I do attempt to rewrite them for an audience.

      My main office is in the garage, next to the patio and you wouldn’t believe how many Cheat Sheets are tacked to the wall–layers and layers. They flutter everytime the door opens. Sometimes I think I should digitize them on my blog; sometimes I think it would be easier to post them as private entries. Not really sure that anyone is interested, anyway.

  2. Excellent post, C. M. 🙂

    For the book I just published, I chose a Prologue to do these deeds…

    Some “experts” say a prologue doesn’t belong in a novel…

    Well, my novel breaks a few rules.

    • Break rules, yeah! I love to break rules, but it’s only fun to break them if you know what they are. And I’m always ready for someone to show me a new way.

      Got any cheat sheets???

      I wouldn’t worry about having a prologue or not having one. These things fall in and out of favor. One could go crazy trying to keep up with the latest fad brought down by the high lords of literary fashion. If your book needs a prolgue, it needs. Hell, I’ve written prolgues for a short story.

  3. Great info to remember. I started writing for the first time in 40 years and don’t consider myself a ‘writer’ but still enjoy doing the little that I can do.
    I am going to keep your info at my fingertips!
    Thank you.

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