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Writing your First Chapter: Two Possible Routes

A few years ago, I took a TV pilot writing class at the iO, taught by Chicago comedy legend, Michael McCarthy. Michael was a great guy and a great teacher who, unfortunately, passed away in 2020 after battling cancer. He was way too young, just 61 years old.

I'm writing this post partially as a tribute to him and his teaching, but also because this particular lesson is one of the most helpful pieces of writing instruction I've ever received. While it most directly applies to TV pilots, I think the principles transfer over nicely to books, too. Especially works of fiction.

Michael McCarthy taught us that of all the TV shows out there, and all the variety of options -- comedy, drama, soap operas, horror, cartoons -- the show's pilot (the first episode) always falls into one of two buckets.

It's either:

  1. Day in the life

  2. First day of the rest of my life

A day in the life pilot, or opening chapter, introduces the main character(s) and the supporting cast and shows what a regular "day in the life" looks like for them. The emphasis is all about showcasing their personalities, senses of humor, and how they interact with each other. The characters could be solving a big problem -- like a murder crime scene -- or a small-stakes problem like interpreting greetings from the opposite sex at the airport.

In contrast, the "first day of the rest of my life" approach starts like a "day in the life" episode but takes a big turn. The writer(s) generally focus on one main character (although two are possible) and shows what a regular, normal day looks like in their life. But then something dramatic happens. A breakup. A diagnosis. A death in the family. The main character's world is flipped upside down, and the audience is, hopefully, invested in seeing how things will play out in the next episode/chapter.

Alright, let's dive into some examples.

Day in the Life

Main emphasis of the pilot - Show a day in the life inside of Sterling Cooper, a 1960s New York City ad agency.

We meet Don Draper. See how he thinks up an ad campaign. We get a glimpse into his personal life. We meet the supporting cast - Peggy Olson, Joan, Pete Campbell, Roger Sterling -- and see how they fit together inside the agency.

Goal - From the characters, the premise, the set design, costumes, nostalgia, all that combined together will make the audience want to return to this world.

The main emphasis of the pilot episode - Showcase Bob Newhart's dry sense of humor and how he interacts with the situations and characters around him.

This pilot almost went "first day of the rest of my life" because Bob and his wife are talking about having children, and they ultimately visit an adoption agency. But in the six seasons of this show, the two never have kids. As this article on Decider points out, "Newhart specifically crafted The Bob Newhart Show to be a show about a married couple without kids because, in part, he didn’t want to play the dopey father that his kids had to help get out of jams."

Goal - Just like The Dick Van Dyke Show, Seinfeld, Frasier, the bet is that people will love the main character so much they'll tune in every week to spend 30 minutes with him and his supporting cast.

All in the Family

This famous scene is not from the pilot episode, but it's a perfect example of the "day in the life" of Archie Bunker. There doesn't have to be a big dramatic plot twist, we just want to hear Archie argue with his son-in-law over the right way to put on your socks and shoes.

Police dramas (Law & Order, NCIS, NYPD Blue, etc.), medical dramas (ER, Grey's Anatomy, Chicago Med), and soap operas, too, will often fall into the day in the life category. The goal here of solving the mystery, or the suspenseful adrenaline rush inside the hospital, or the who's-sleeping-with-who love triangles, we want drama but consistency in the roles and environment. We don't want the police officer to be a barista by the end of the first episode (although, that could be an interesting comedy).

I can't end this section without referencing Seinfeld. This show was famously referred to as "the show about nothing." You can't get more day in the life than that. Some big overarching plot didn't really matter (or exist). You could hop in fresh at Season 4 and be just fine. There wasn't much backstory to catch up on. Turn on any episode, any season, and enjoy watching Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer go through their hilariously neurotic lives.

First Day of the Rest of My Life

Pilot episode - Mary Tyler Moore's long-term relationship ends, and she moves to Minneapolis with no job, no place to live. The supporting cast is introduced through her search for an apartment and job interview at the WJM newsroom.

This is a great way to do a "first day of the rest of my life" episode. The main character was on one clearly defined path (get engaged, get married, maybe start a family), but this all unexpectedly blows up. Even the opening song has a perfect "first day of the rest of my life" line: you might just make it after all.

Goal - The audience will fall in love with Mary Tyler Moore's charm and sense of humor (in this case, they already had via The Dick Van Dyke Show) and also want to see more of the quirky supporting cast. They'll tune in for the rest of the season and every season after to see if Mary might just make it after all.

In one of the best pilot episodes of all time, we see Walter White on one track at the beginning -- disgruntled high school chemistry teacher, struggling financially, working a second job at a car wash -- until one day, he collapses at the car wash, goes to the hospital, and the doctors find out he has inoperable lung cancer. Only has two years left to live.

This life-changing news, combined with the stress of covering his healthcare costs and providing for his family after he's gone (his teenage son also has cerebral palsy), plus his internal drive/obsession to be the best at something and not to go through life having his chemistry knowledge go unappreciated, all of this sets off a wild series of dominos that leads to him teaming up with a former student (Jesse Pinkman) to start cooking meth in an old RV.

Whew! Talk about covering a lot of ground in the first hour. But everything is brilliantly executed, every detail perfectly planted, which allows this dramatic jump from high school chemistry teacher to meth producer to become, surprisingly, believable.

Ted Lasso is the best example I can think of where two main characters are each experiencing a "first day of the rest of my life" roller coaster ride in the pilot episode.

Rebecca is going through a divorce and the shock of being the last one to know that Rupert, her husband and AFC Richmond soccer club owner, was sleeping around for years. Her plan? Get revenge by driving his beloved soccer club (which she now owns) into the ground.

How's she gonna do this? By hiring American football coach, Ted Lasso. A man who knows nothing about soccer.

One of the sub-genres of "first day of the rest of my life" is the "fish out of water" story. A Division 2 College Football coach from Kansas going to coach soccer in England definitely qualifies as a fish out of water.

Speaking of football, the pilot episode of Friday Night Lights actually has two -- or at least one and a half -- life-altering turns. The first is Coach Taylor as the new high school football coach in a small Texas town that lives and dies by their team. We watch Coach Taylor and his wife adjust to this crazy new world.

But we also have the first football game where All-American quarterback, Jason Street, suffers a major hit that appears to leave him paralyzed. This injury changes everything and sets at least five different conflicts and storylines in motion that will play out in Season 1 and for the rest of the series.

It's hard to bring an audience to tears in a pilot episode or the first chapter of a book because you haven't had much time to build an emotional connection. But Friday Night Lights succeeds in this arena. This is a must-watch, even if you're not a football fan.

Here's one more recent show to put in the mix. The pilot episode of HBO's Succession introduces the Roy family and their fictional media company Waystar RoyCo. It looks like the patriarch and CEO, Logan Roy, is going to pass the company down to his kids because of his deteriorating health. But on his 80th birthday, he announces that he's not going anywhere. This causes all types of family drama and heightens the already accelerating in-fighting among the siblings. But then we shift gears again when Logan suffers a stroke.

This is just one guy's experience with the show, but during this pilot episode, I was thinking to myself, "I don't think I like any of these characters. Who am I supposed to root for here?" I had a similar experience with House of Cards and, to some degree, Veep, although with Veep, the characters were all hilarious, just really mean to each other. But, even with that "who do I root for?" conflict, I was still hooked to watch the second episode. And the third.

If you're writing about corruption, whether that's in politics, a media company, a private equity firm, a drug lord, a mob boss, a tech company that's scamming people out of millions of dollars, chances are your main character is an antihero. They aren't Coach Taylor, or Jerry Seinfeld, or Mary Tyler Moore. Which raises the question, how do you get people to care about a character they don't admire or even really like?

I think it comes down to a few things. The writing and acting for sure, but also, does the character make interesting choices? Do they show a capacity to change? Is there a good character who's either chasing them down (police/detective style) or a good character trying to bring them to the light? Will the bad guy be caught, will it be a gut-wrenching tragedy, or a Darth Vader saving Luke Skywalker redemption story? (apologies if that spoiled the ending to Return of the Jedi).

Perhaps best of all is if you can get the audience or the reader to see parts of themselves in the antihero. That's when you've really made a deep connection.

Okay, one more for fun. I could only type "world gets flipped upside down" so many times in this article before dropping a Fresh Prince of Bel-Air reference. The opening song for Fresh Prince does a great job delivering a "first day of the rest of my life" premise in under a minute.

This is a story all about how my life got twisted upside down...

I got in one little fight and my mom got scared and she said, "You're movin' with your auntie and uncle in Bel-Air...

Applying this to Your Own Writing

If you've already written the first chapter of your book, look back and decide if it's a "Day in the Life" or "First Day of the Rest of my Life."

If it's "Day in the Life," have you introduced all your main characters? Look at their dialogue, is it driving the action forward? Is it establishing their personalities? Are there areas where you're describing something about a character (he has a short temper) vs. showing this character trait in action (I said a plain cheeseburger! You threw a whole vegetable garden on here!)

If it's "First Day of the Rest of my Life," how can you heighten the stakes? Can the break-up become an ended engagement where they were getting married next week? If she quits her job, can we see that she's down to $50 in her bank account? What if the Division 2 college football coach doesn't land a Division 1 college job, but instead lands a professional soccer job in London?

If you haven't written the first chapter, but you have put together an outline, what happens if you move your big plot twist from the middle of the book to the very first chapter? How does that change the rest of your story? Try it out.

And if you have no first chapter, no outline, just some ideas bouncing around in your head, why not borrow one of these prompts from the shows above and see what happens:

  1. Pick a prior decade, pick an industry, and write a workplace scene with your characters.

  2. Your main character and their love interest talk about starting a family.

  3. Two of your characters have a heated debate over some everyday thing like how to properly butter corn on the cob, whether it's better to use charcoal or gas grill, who's the best guitarist of all time. Each believes passionately in their view. See what happens.

  4. Write a scene inside a police station or hospital. Who knows, even if that's not your genre, your story may end up needing a police or hospital scene.

  5. Your main character is picking up a [friend, roommate, mom, dad, ex] at the airport. Write this scene!

  6. Move your main character to a new city, write their first day in the change of scenery.

  7. Main character receives a serious diagnosis. What does the next day look like?

  8. Picture something your main character would be absolutely out of place doing or an environment that would be totally different for them. Write it!

  9. Journey back to high school. Describe what it was like to play on a sports team, be at one of the games, be in the band, or be at home on a Friday night, whatever your thing was, travel back, and write it in first-person.

  10. The Family Business. Pretend you're the main character. Hi, my name is [Blank]. My Mom (or Dad) is the largest manufacturer/creator of [Blank] in the entire state of [Blank]. Fill in those three blanks and now pass the business down to the main character. What happens next?

  11. Listen to the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme song. That's all. End of prompt.

As always, we are here to help out, whatever stage you're at. We offer free 30-minute "talk about your book" sessions as well as later-stage paid courses like "Turn the Page" (which is all about writing a first page of your book, table reads (for dialogue-heavy works), full manuscript reads, Feedback Circle, and editing services. Feel free to email for more information.

So, whether you've done this before and writing is just another day in the life activity, or you're starting something new, and this is a real first day of the rest of your life experience, either way, here's a push to get started and write that opening chapter. Who knows, maybe you'll end up writing a whole book (or TV show) after that first chapter.

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