Whether you’re a seasoned author or just writing your freshman first draft, you know how much Chapter One matters. Most of us have browsed the bookstore or library shelves as readers and scanned first chapters for our next favorite book. As writers, we know how easily readers can slip most books back onto the shelf after the first chapter — and we want our book to be the one they take home.
First chapters don’t offer much space for detail. We have to convince readers to take a chance on our story and stick with it until the end. Without a great Chapter One, we may never get a chance to show off the hard work we’ve put into the rest of the book.
Once you know you’ve picked the right scene for Chapter One, edit it ruthlessly and make sure it includes these four elements:
No two ways about it, your main character needs to show up on the first page. If your opening scene doesn’t include your protagonist, you still have restructuring to do.
Chapter One establishes the tone for the rest of your book. Imagine you want to introduce two of your friends at a party. One arrives before the other and gets deep into conversation with someone else. By the time your second friend arrives, it’s too late to orchestrate the magical connection you had planned. The same can happen if you immerse your reader in Chapter One before introducing your main character. Readers will already have connected with someone else, making your protagonist feel like an outsider.
Begin your first chapter in an active scene shortly before your first inciting incident. Resist the temptation to give readers too much backstory or setting detail. They don’t have enough context to care about that stuff yet. First they need to see your main character in action.
That means something needs to be happening. It doesn’t need to be big or dramatic, but it should allow readers to learn about your protagonist’s character through her actions. The first page of Nic Stone’s novel Dear Martin shows 17-year-old Justyce coming to his ex-girlfriend’s rescue when she’s too drunk to drive, even though his best friend thinks it’s a bad idea and she doesn’t look happy to see him. Most readers will find this sort of high school drama familiar, if not relatable. Yet by the end of Chapter One Stone has deftly guided us right into the book’s first inciting incident.
You’ll have plenty of time for backstory, setting, and character development throughout the book. In Chapter One, focus on action and give readers only the information they need to understand the scene. Those unanswered detail questions will keep them curious to learn more.
While you don’t need to lay it all out in the first chapter, you do need to hint at stakes. What does your main character want? What might get in his way? Stone’s main character, Justyce, finds himself in handcuffs when police make assumptions about his intentions with the ex-girlfriend. In the first chapter of Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies, we learn a main character has died but we don’t know which one. Every chapter should end with some kind of unanswered question, but none more so than Chapter One. Readers haven’t completely invested yet and if you don’t spark their interest, they may never get to Chapter Two.
Your narrator’s voice will determine will determine readers’ investment in your book. This voice acts as a conduit for the rest of your story. You need a person to draw readers in, even if you have a compelling plot or unique setting. Just ask any writer who’s received a rejection letter with some variation of the following: “your writing is great, but I just didn’t connect enough to the main character.”
Voice may be the most important component of a great first chapter. In her novel On The Come Up, author Angie Thomas nails the main character’s voice on the first page. She brings readers straight into the protagonist’s world and makes it our own. While the story tackles a lot of serious issues, readers care deeply about those issues because of their connection to the main character.
No matter where you begin your story or what scene you choose for Chapter One, think about the expectations this chapter sets for the rest of the book. Readers should know which character will sit at the center of the story’s orbit and what kind of person they are. They should also see this character in action and get a feel for your story’s stakes and major themes. These elements will help you hook readers and keep them turning pages until the end.