Hours spent rereading and retyping your story. Friday nights sacrificed to write. Constant pondering in your head if there is a better way to word those trouble sentences. This is your daily life because you want your book to be at its best before you ship it off to publishers hopefully for acceptance letters. But you’re still stuck on revising those first few pages. Your story has the right amount of detail, as well as avoids excessive backstory. Yet something still isn’t quite right. Why does it feel like your first chapter is stalling? How do you launch the story into motion from the very first page? What more can you do?
Your Story Needs Conflict
We all have different ways of writing. Some of us like to plot out every little detail before we sit down and write, while others of us take a vague outline and start writing almost immediately. There is not a right or wrong way to the process of writing. However, there is a right and wrong way to plot structure. Many subpar first chapters struggle because of a lack of planned conflict. Great American author Jack Bickham wrote, “Good fiction starts with–and deals with–someone’s response to threat.”
If a story lacks some sort of trouble, then it also lacks action and change. Characters will not need to act if some force is not fighting against them. Even more importantly, people want to read about characters who change in some way. A flat character is a boring character. So without some sort of struggle there is no change, and thus no real reader interest. As a result of this, your first chapter must launch into that conflict from the very beginning. No, you do not need to spill out every little detail of the main conflict in the first page, but you must at least hint at trouble brewing. If you are missing this in your first chapter, this is likely the reason that your first chapter still feels flat.
So, if this is the case, now you should ask yourself what type of conflict your story needs.
Finding the Balance Between External and Internal Conflict
There are two types of main conflict: external and internal. External deals with outside, exterior, tangible forces, like a dragon or a murderer. This usually is a human vs. human type of conflict, although human vs. nature is also within this category. Internal focuses on trouble within a character, such as internal struggle over morality or an important decision.
Most good stories use a combination of external and internal conflict. For example, Suzanne Collins’ popular young adult fiction book The Hunger Games incorporates both types. Protagonist Katniss Everdeen battles other tributes in the arena, which is an external conflict, but she also struggles against her actions in the arena and her own feelings for Peeta. In this type of story, most of the obvious conflict is external, but underlying all of the external danger is internal trouble.
While not all books need both internal and external conflict, internal conflict is typically the most effective and interesting if used by itself. This is because external conflict can add adventure to a story, but true character change comes from characters battling against themselves. Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray is a great example of an effective story that leans mostly on the internal side. In this novel, there is very little external conflict, but the main character, Dorian Gray, fights with himself over his darkening nature and personal morality. This internal struggle affects and changes him in a much more damaging and interesting way than any type of external conflict could have.
While you will make the final decision on which type of clash will strengthen your story, remember that internal conflict tends to work the best, although external conflict also adds interest and action to a story.
Steps to Incorporating Conflict in Your First Chapter
- If you haven’t already, decide what the main conflict is in your story. Try to find both internal and external conflicts, and write out/plan how each will be explored in your story. Also, keep it mind that you will likely have multiple examples of both external and internal conflict throughout your story.
- Now, focus primarily on your first chapter. Since you want to start your story with that conflict from the beginning, decide how much of your internal conflict you want to expose. Often, just hinting at a problem will be enough to make your story interesting. You do not want to reveal all of your brilliant ideas all at once, after all.
- With the internal conflict planned out, now work on the external conflict if desired. Remember that internal conflict is the main building block of a story, but external conflict will certainly propel your story into action. Rather than start your story with your character completing some mundane task, such as waking up in the morning or conducting normal routine tasks, try throwing them in the middle of some type of external problem or challenge. By doing this, you add more action to the story and also have an opportunity to show some of the underlying internal troubles while the character fights exterior forces.
- From here, with the right mix, you should have the beginning of a great first chapter. Now just be sure to carry on that same level to all of your other chapters!