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Chapter 1 Problems


I've written for a year now(ish) and I've come along some great ideas I'd like to form into existence.

But I always, always, ALWAYS have one problem. I can't seem to get past the first chapter or even the first 1,000 words! I sit down with my laptop, a fresh, blank, bleak white sheet. Within minutes I begin writing a sentence, then it builds to a paragraph. Then another paragraph. I quickly... run out of ideas for the first chapter. I read through the text and decide what I've written is horrid! Horrible! Awful! Even if I was thinking what I wrote was great when I wrote it. So when I think it's awful I just give up and start over. That's my daily writing routine. Has anybody else felt this way, or experienced this? Am I doing something wrong, am I not doing anything that I should be doing? Should I be trying amy other techniques such as starting at chapter 20 or etc.

It's really annoying when I just want to write and get a story done. I want to, experience my characters, and ideas.

Thank you, -ANM

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7 answers


Normally when I start writing a story, there is a moment with a character or a specific line that inspired me to start thinking about the story. I then focus on that specific moment and figure out how to get to the dialogue or the moment I envisioned.

Sometimes I start writing the chapter and I never actually write the sentence or the event that I imagined, but it's because I went in a different direction and felt a different flow while writing it. Sometimes I keep it and sometimes I decide my original idea was better and go back and tweak it. But the most important thing to do is to get all of the words out, on a page. You will make sense of them later, but leave good notes for yourself!

In regards to good notes, it is super useful if you have an outline or at least an idea for the trajectory of the story, then you can hop around in the chapters and write what you feel most inspired to write. As you near the completion of the novel, you will fill in the gaps.

Stephen King in his book "On Writing" says that it is critical to get the first draft done as soon as possible. The editing part is the part to drag out. He seems to feel that his ideas die or that he loses interest if they are not completed in a certain amount of time.

In short, don't focus so much on writing chronologically. Sometimes you write a chapter and expect it to be the fifth chapter, but later on you realize what a great first chapter it would be, or tenth chapter. If you have a lot of ideas but aren't sure how to connect them, write each scene on a notecard so that you can rearrange them. I did that with my fantasy novel and it was super duper helpful.

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Yes, you are doing something wrong.

Typically the first thing you think of for a story is not where a story should start, because story ideas begin with big dramatic moments, reveals, discoveries, and so on. The idea for a story is often a turning point for a character, and that is not how to start a story.

For example, an author imagines a person that learns they can teleport themselves exactly as far as their outstretched fingertip, in any direction. No more, no less. For the author, this is an exciting idea, a very limited superpower, what will the character do with it? They imagine some scenes: Use it in fighting a bully. Use it for a bank robbery. What happens if something is already in that spot? How does the character FIRST learn about this power? Is there really any MORE to it? Can it be restrained? Can you teleport out of ropes and handcuffs? If you can, why don't you teleport out of your clothing, because what's the difference between ropes and cuffs, and your watch or shoes with laces or your underwear?

This is a good imaginative path (for any idea you find cool), and THAT is what you should be writing down, those questions for yourself and deciding answers on the gem of this idea.

But it would be a mistake to open Chapter 1 with Bobby finding out she can teleport. Nobody cares, nobody cares about Bobby yet, nobody is interested in her. Is she an evil bitch, or a happy friend? Is she bullied, or a bully? We need to get to know her as a normal person, so we are interested in what she will do with this superpower. Her discovery of her superpower is more like the "changing moment" in Act I, (read about the Act structure, or read my other answers Here and Here.)

So that should be 10% to 15% of the way through the story, first you must introduce your characters, your villain, your 'world' setting (be it a fantasy land or modern day Brooklyn), etc. You need to show the 'normal world' of your main character, and THEN the inciting incident that changes their world occurs after all that is described. That incident can be anything life-changing: Harry Potter meets Hagrid and discovers he is going to Hogwarts at 10%, at 15% he is boarding a magic train to literally a new world.

What you are doing wrong is most likely hurrying, trying to write prose when you should be thinking about your characters.

Whether you plot or not is a personal choice. I don't. When I write I have an ending in mind, and I have written notes on what it should be (not any prose).

But I can change that, if my story and characters veer off while I am writing, I am always conscious of whether I can still reach my planned ending: If not, I must come up with a new ending that is still plausible, or undo what I wrote that demanded a different ending.

(I don't force my characters, heroes or villains, to do stupid things in order to force the outcome as success or failure. As I write the scene, I try to make each do the smartest thing based on their knowledge of the situation and each other. If that results in a failure for the heroes, so be it. I think readers easily detect when the confrontation is rigged to make a specific outcome, and (to me as a reader) it makes the story boring, a long series of deus ex machina and implausibly fortunate coincidences.)

I do always have a 'next step' in the three act structure that I am writing toward, broken roughly on 5% boundaries. Assuming I will write 100,000 words, with 250 words per page, I know where I should be in the story within 20 pages or so (or within 5000 words, depending on how you format your pages when you are writing).

If you need to jump into the best part first, write the middle of Act I or the end of Act I first. Just know that you need to go back and fill in your intro, characters (hero[es], villain[s], sidekick[s]), and world based on that, and how they CAME to the part you wrote. After that, you will probably want to rewrite what you wrote first, perhaps even scrap it and start over. Writing can be very much a process of discovering the real story as you go. Your first ideas are in there, but while writing you (or at least I) come to see, "Aha, this is what my hero is really about, what they really want and believe in, and this is what my villain really wants."



I haven't read the other answers, but still wanted to weigh in with what I think might be going on, because I know how frustrating it is to have an idea you can't seem to fulfill. I'll break this answer down into the things I think you need to address.

Determine the problem

You first have to find out where the problem is. There could be several reasons you're running out of steam, and they all have different fixes. This is very much something that you need to determine, but here's my take on it based on what you wrote. You said:

I quickly... run out of ideas for the first chapter. I read through the text and decide what I've written is horrid!

There are two very different problems here.

Problem #1 - Inner Critic

The second line is about your inner critic: the part of you which will never be satisfied with what you write, regardless of how good or bad it is. You have to accept this fact. Use your inner critic to achieve good grammar, spelling, and English, and then let other people criticize your work and tell you what works and what doesn't. If you let yourself do this, your writing will never see the light of day.

Problem #2 - Lack of development

The first line, about running out of ideas for the first chapter, sounds to me like your ideas are incomplete. Don't worry! This doesn't mean they're worthless or need to be thrown out. Based on the fact that you are running out of steam, I think you might benefit from a style of writing called 'plotting'.

The style of writing you are currently using - where you sit down in front of a blank sheet of paper and start to write - is called 'discovery writing' or sometimes 'pantsing'. 'Plotting' is the complete opposite. Instead of trying to write your novel once you have an idea, you spend the time up front to develop the idea, work on things like characters, stakes, plot, and all the things a story needs to work. You put all of that together and create an outline for your story, incorporating all of the development you know your story will need. This isn't a rough outline, but a very detailed outline, defining down to the scene what happens. This detailed outline acts as your first few drafts.

Then you actually write your story.

Why this should help you

The advantages to doing it this way are that you avoid exactly what seems to be happening to you. You can have a great idea, but the best ideas by themselves are not enough to tell a story. Stories are carefully crafted things, and if you try to skip that crafting phase, the initial idea and interest can only take you so far.

Those are my two suggestions to you: learn to master your inner critic by filling your head with examples of good writing, and then letting others tell you what works and what doesn't; and take a stab at plotting rather than pantsing. It's not for everyone, but it could work for you.

Best of luck in your writing!



It sounds as though you are expecting your first draft to not be horrid.

I discovered in college that the beautiful poetry I wrote, and that I would proudly thumbtack to bulletin boards around campus as soon as it was done, was magical poetry. It was truly magical. I know this, because when I saw it the very next day, it had transmogrified into something hideous and vapid.

Every time. Writing magical poetry is one of my superpowers.

However, this is a very common superpower.

The advantage of learning that I wrote horribly, was that it lowered my expectations. You may (or may not) have written something horrid, I don't know, but I do see a lot of horrid writing. A lot of it is on my laptop.

Plan to write 1000 more horrid words, or perhaps two chapters, and make your goal "I am going to force myself to realize that first drafts suck." You will be in good company. Then, after 100 words (or whatever length, a couple chapters, something - ) go back and rework it. Move stuff around. Change the telling to showing, Play with point of view. Elaborate on back story, or subtext, or double entendre. Look for repetitive structure or bad grammar.

I'm on my 6th revision now. Hurray! My characters are developing nicely. It turns out they had all sorts of stuff going on that I didn't know about in draft 1. Oh, and draft 1 was actually the second start to the story - the protagonist changed dramatically from my first stab to my second.

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Usually when someone says that they have a lot of ideas, they mean that they have a lot of plot ideas. The problem is, they don't understand the difference between a plot idea and a story idea. Giant ape climbs the Empire State Building is an plot idea. Great, now sit down and write a story the climax of which is a giant ape climbing the Empire State Building. Yes, you can probably put together a few hundred words about an explorer getting up an expedition. But then you look at what you have and realize that you are still 50,000 words away from having your giant ape climb the Empire State Building and you have no idea what those 50,000 words are going to be about.

Because all you had was a plot idea and you don't have any story ideas.

So what is a story idea? All story ideas are basically a variations on one thing. A man (or woman, or child, or small furry animal) had two desires, both of which he (she, it) believes they can achieve, but between which he will eventually be forced to choose.

The plot is a device for forcing him into a position in which he must choose between those two desires, for good or ill. This may or may not involve a giant ape climbing the Empire State Building.

There is nothing wrong with starting with the plot idea of a giant ape climbing the Empire State Building, but you then have to work back to create a story idea in which this event becomes a pivotal plot point. This is not necessarily all that difficult, because all story ideas basically derive from that one choice between competing desires. But it can be intricate to come up with a character and their two or more desires whose resolution will necessarily involve your plot idea.

Once you do that work, you will find that you have a place to begin, where you will illustrate the two desires of the character, and from there you will be able to chart their course in pursuit of those desires and lead them to the point that they must choose, and there will you your 50,000 words leading up to your giant ape climbing the Empire State Building.



Great advises were given here and I cannot add to it more, but I still do have some minor things which might help you. But be aware, because they work for me, it does not mean they will work for you!

  • Schedule: Make it a rule in your life. Even if it means to write just 300 words per day. Just sit no matter what and do it.

  • No Excuses: Thinking of that beer to loosen up? NO! Thinking to skip a day because of writer's block? NO! Just sit down and push through it, even if you write complete trash. Important is to get it from you head.

  • No distraction: I put my phone in another room, put the laptop on airplane mode and sit at quite place with as little things as possible. And write, no matter what, even if that scene does not make sense for now. Perhaps I just have mood for action scene right now, so I will write it for me and use it later.

  • Reward yourself: Writing a book, even short story is a long process. Give yourself a reward in form of game-time, beer-time for every milestone you achieve (whatever you like). Either will it be chapter or each 1000 words. Personally, I found it intimidating working on something for months, knowing I might get trashed for it.

  • Writing Group: We have a goal to write 12,000 words a week and then mutually criticize it (constructively) and suggest ideas on blank spots (Places where you just say to yourself "something belongs here, but I do not know what yet)



There are a few problems that come to mind when I see this.

A) The problem you seem to have is not able to fully stretched out the entire detail of the story. Without a clear plan, you will struggle to write.

B) The Editor revising problem.

Answer for A) I will give you a few approaches that I've learnt thus far.

1) Method from Brandon Sanderson (Author for mainly Fantasy) -Think of all the cool moments you want to have -Build your story to achieve those goals (3 Act format, or any other story structure) -Check to ensure all holes/requirements are met to achieve those goals ^You can refer in detail from his website (, I'm just giving a rough summary / outline of it.

2) My own method -Outline the story -Start from beginning and End of the story. Branch out from either side or from the middle depending on where the ideas are strongest -Fill up the scenes with the needed dialogues if unable to describe, follow afterwards.

Answer for B) Don't revise until at least you complete the chapter. Preferably when the entire story is done. When you revise, make sure that the key decisions / styles of your story is maintained, not at a whim of the day.

Hope this helps.

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