Your opening chapter does more heavy lifting than any other pages in your book. Like it or not, Chapter One is a sales pitch. Whether you’re vying for the interest of an agent, editor, or reader, your first chapter gives a taste of what they can expect from your entire story. You only get one chance to make that first impression. Here’s how to make it count:
Start as late as you can
Drop into any online pitch contest or #10queries session and you’ll hear a common piece of agent/editor feedback: “writing is strong but the story starts too soon.”
Readers need to sense your first inciting incident on the horizon by the time they finish Chapter One. This establishes your stakes and gives readers an idea of what the book will be about. It also compels them to find out what happens next.
That said, don’t start too late, either. Throwing readers into a big action scene before they know the first thing about your protagonist will leave them wondering why they should care. They need context for why your first inciting incident matters and what’s stake for your main character.
Make the reader care about your protagonist
People won’t continue reading your plot if they don’t care about the person at its center. They don’t need to like your protagonist, necessarily — just want to see what happens to them.
Two big factors drive readers’ interest in a character’s journey: conflict and stakes. Think about successful television shows, from Seinfeld to Brothers & Sisters. Across every genre, addictive plots always have something at stake and never go too long without a conflict.
Conflict can be internal, something only your protagonist experiences or knows about, or external, between two or more characters. A really interesting plot will employ both. And where there’s conflict, there are stakes: something your main character stands to lose depending on a situation’s outcome. Whether it’s through empathy or schadenfreude, these are the elements that hook readers’ interest (and their hearts).
Go light on backstory
Backstory slows the pace and always risks pulling readers out of the scene. Don’t give their attention an opportunity to wander before they’re fully invested in your story. Limit first-chapter backstory and exposition to what readers absolutely need to know to understand what’s happening in the moment. You can pepper in more backstory as the story progresses and readers have more context for why they should care.
Give those first-chapter revisions all you’ve got
Ironically, it gets easier to keep readers with you as you progress further into your story. Once they’ve gotten to know your characters and spent an hour or more in your story world, they feel invested. Most readers will begin requiring a reason to stop reading instead of a reason to keep reading.
The first chapter, however, is like a blind date. Readers have a chance to split before they have any skin in the game. This means you should put your best editing efforts into your opening chapters. Immerse readers so deeply in your prose they forget they’re reading. Fine-tune your pacing until their focus can’t possibly waver from the page. Readers may forgive minor imperfections farther into your book, but red flags in the first chapter set the tone for everything that follows. Go through your opening with a fine-toothed comb — and a trusted critique partner — to polish away those imperfections.
Leave readers hanging
End your first chapter with a minor cliffhanger: some unanswered question that signals to readers, something’s about to go down, and you want to be here for it. Every chapter should have its own mini-arc, but nowhere is this more critical than that first chapter. Give readers something to hold onto — a compelling main character and a promise of impending action — but don’t wrap things up too neatly. Leave at least one loose end they’ll feel compelled to resolve by reading Chapter Two.