Start Strong: Vocal's Guide to Mastering Chapter One

Tips to elevate your Next Great [American] Novel Challenge entry

By Vocal Curation TeamPublished about a month ago Updated about a month ago 5 min read

Thinking of entering the Next Great [American] Novel Challenge but unsure where to start? The blank canvas of a first chapter can be daunting. Dive in too quickly, and you might drown in a sea of unnecessary information. Tread too lightly, and you might not hook your reader’s attention. So, how do you strike that perfect balance? Let’s break it down.

Your first draft is for you. It's your playground, where you're free to discover characters, settings, and plot lines. Don’t shy away from spilling everything onto the page. Come revision time, that chapter might need a trim, maybe even an extreme makeover. You’ll often end up rewriting the entire thing! Don’t stress; it’s a natural part of the process.

Many writers pen the final version of their first chapter after they’ve already perfected their story’s ending. By working backwards, they know what needs to be introduced first, and what to withhold to avoid giving it all away. For the purpose of this challenge, we do not expect you to have a novel fully written, but you should ideally know where your story is heading.

As a starting point, focus on what drives your story for this challenge. Is it social commentary, personal experiences, or a unique perspective? Let your passion and vision fuel your narrative.

Key Elements

Determine Point of View: Point of view (POV) dictates how information in your story is revealed. A narrative in first person offers readers a profound glimpse into the protagonist's thoughts. A third-person limited perspective can heighten suspense by holding back crucial details about the characters and their backgrounds. A third-person omniscient POV allows the author to share multiple characters' thoughts and emotions. Your story can also alternate POVs. Playing with point of view can drastically change the tone and inherent structure of your story.

Capture Attention: At the very outset, a story's beginning should possess the power to seize the reader's attention. Consider the way George Orwell's "1984" introduces the clocks striking thirteen – a unique and jarring observation that not only arouses curiosity, but smoothly transitions into the unveiling of the story's central figure.

Introduce the Protagonist: The character we meet first is the one we'll bond with, so make it count. Forming an emotional connection between your reader and your protagonist is key. It's not necessarily about creating a likable character; it's about portraying someone with depth, someone we can understand, and maybe even relate to. You should also set the stage to reveal your main character's motivation or desire, which propels the story forward.

Set the Mood: Your opening sets the tone for your entire story. Use descriptive language or clever dialogue to immerse your reader in the story's atmosphere right from the start.

Foreshadow Themes: Gently hint at the larger themes your novel would explore. Great American Novels often delve into complex themes. Use symbols, metaphors, and allegories to examine broader societal issues and human nature. Since it's the first chapter, you only need a touch.

Think of Setting as a Character: Have you ever read a book and felt instantly transported? That's the immersive art of setting. Give readers a sense of where and when the story is taking place. Provide enough detail for them to visualize the scene, without overwhelming them with unnecessary exposition. The setting is particularly crucial to the essence of the Great American Novel. This genre often captures the socio-cultural nuances and the diverse landscapes of America, using them to reflect broader national sentiments and historical moments. The backdrop in which the story unfolds isn't just a passive environment; it becomes an active character that influences plot, shapes characters, and informs the novel's themes. For a work to be recognized as the Great [American] Novel, its setting must paint a vivid picture of the nation's soul. Whether it's the hustle of New York streets or the serenity of a secluded village, sprinkling sensory details immerses readers into your protagonist's world. But remember: show, don't tell. Let them hear the taxis, smell the fresh countryside, and feel the ambiance.

Introduce the Antagonist: Your story's spice? The antagonist. Whether it's a menacing villain, societal norms, or internal demons, they challenge your protagonist, shaping their journey. The presence of this counter-force creates tension and conflict.

Determine the Inciting Incident: Light a fuse that will lead to a bigger explosion. An inciting incident is a pivotal moment in a story that introduces the central conflict and sets the plot in motion. It's the event or situation that disrupts the status quo and forces the protagonist to act, pushing them out of their comfort zone and propelling them into the main action of the story. The inciting incident sparks the narrative's primary challenge or problem that the main character will face, and it's what gives the story its direction. Inciting incidents typically occur early in a story, but not necessarily within the first chapter. For the purpose of this challenge, introduction of the inciting incident in the first chapter is welcome, but not required.

Introduce Only Key Characters: Focus only on major characters early on. Save the minor ones for later, unless they play a vital role in this chapter.

Strive for Authenticity: Realism is a hallmark of many Great American Novels. Even if your story has fantastical elements, make your characters' emotions and experiences accessible. Authenticity is what makes your story stand out in a sea of entries.

First chapters lay the foundation for your novel. While this guide provides you with some structure to consider, not every element listed above needs to be fleshed out in your opening chapter. The true magic lies in your distinct viewpoint and how you immerse the reader into a distinctly [American] world.


World Building: Ground the reader in the setting, era, and surroundings.

Character Engagement: Make the protagonist relatable, engaging, and layered.

Narrative Clarity: Define the point of view and narrative style early on.

Cultural and Moral Setting: Give readers a sense of the broader societal challenges in the story's universe.

Pique Interest: The first chapter is just the beginning. Make your readers want to "turn the page" for more.

Remember, every great novel begins as a simple idea, nurtured and molded with purpose. Your Next Great [American] Novel submission might just be the next masterpiece the world is waiting to add to the new literary canon. Let us know what you think about these points and share your advice for writing a strong first chapter in the comments below.

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  • krisaleen22 days ago

    I have recently started posting my articles here and would love to hear your thoughts and feedback. It would mean a lot to me if you could take a few moments to read and share your thoughts. Please subscribed to me and I will do the same. <3

  • Tiffany Gordon 25 days ago

    Thanks for sharing this guide it was useful. I also wanted to say that it has been absolutely wonderful to see protagonists of faith being featured in the Top Stories section recently.That community has a unique voice that needs a chance at the microphone as well! Nice job curation team!

  • Some helpful thoughts here.

  • Rene Volpiabout a month ago

    I'm glad you allowed us the freedom of country of origin. If you hadn't, I'd be toast. :-D

  • Alexis Wellmakerabout a month ago

    Thank you for this guide. This was definitely a challenge I needed. I've carried ideas for my great American novel with me for years. I have jotted down ideas here and there. This writers' challenge helped me to focus on the story I have wanted to write for so long. Win or lose ... My first chapter is now complete!

  • JBazabout a month ago

    Always good to be reminded and learn new ideas. It is so easy to get lost in the writing that we forget the reader cannot see into the mind of the writer.

  • Babs Iversonabout a month ago

    Superb information and tips!!!❤️❤️💕

  • Raymond G. Taylorabout a month ago

    Great piece thanks. Just read it quick and will give a Proper read through later. I know it will help get me started. Been struggling with the concept and it doesn’t help not being American. No such thing as a great British novel so will just have to imagine my way into the book 😀

  • Dana Crandellabout a month ago

    A very helpful resource! Thank you!

  • Novel Allenabout a month ago

    This is an exciting step by step that should help in a big way. This is a daunting challenge. I attempted one already. My second one should learn from these great pointers. Good luck everyone. Thank you Vocal Curators.

  • Kendall Defoe about a month ago

    Excellent points raised here.

  • Ahamed Thousifabout a month ago

    This is a very helpful message.

  • Stephanie J. Bradberryabout a month ago

    Thank you so much! I've been waiting for this guide to come out.

  • Paul Stewartabout a month ago

    Thanks for this helpful guide!

  • Judey Kalchik about a month ago

    This Challenge is one that feels daunting to me- thank you for the tips!

  • The Invisible Writerabout a month ago

    Thank you Vocal Curation Team good stuff here. Always looking for great articles like this to improve my writing

  • Mother Combsabout a month ago

    Great tips

  • Great insights into story writing 📝 Thank you and This was very helpful❗

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