It starts with an initial kernel of an idea. Then progresses to brainstorming, plotting, outlining, character development and on and on until at last you are ready to write a drop-dead, brilliant opening chapter designed to hook agents, publishers and readers within the first pages.
No pressure, right?
You can significantly decrease the changes of losing reader interest early in the story by understanding and implementing the critical elements that make for a successful first chapter. Use the following tips to give your story a solid start.
Choose a Strong Starting Point
Choosing the right starting point is crucial to a successful opening. To determine the best starting point, identify what sets the action of your story in motion. To intrigue and engage the reader start with some type of conflict or problem to be solved. Perhaps an inciting incident or significant event.
If still uncertain where to start, pick a scene you plan to include and use that as your starting point with the understanding that you can always change or shift scenes during the revision process.
Write An Irresistible Opening/Hook
Your opening chapter starts with a first line that should immediately hook the reader or sets up the hook that follows. Either way, these few words should be your absolute, best writing to let the reader know what they are about to read is worth their time and attention.
Opening lines from Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved:
“124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom.”
Evaluate your hook to determine what aspects will draw readers into the story and keep them reading. Ask yourself in what way does your hook convince readers they will enjoy the book, or that it is different from other books in its category? Is your hook aimed at your intended readership?
Use a Strong, Engaging Narrative Voice
The narrative voice you use in the first chapter sets the tone for the rest of the novel. To engage readers, the narrative voice must be commanding, convincing, compelling, and authentic. This is especially true in the first chapter to ensure readers want to continue reading the rest of the story.
To develop a strong narrative voice, review some of your favorite books to see how the author used this voice to keep readers hooked and propel the story. Incorporate what works into your writing.
Introduce a Compelling Character
The opening scene of your story should introduce the scene’s main character (preferably your protagonist) as a compelling and important person. It is this character’s hand that leads the readers into the story.
To introduce a compelling character in Chapter One, you must know that character as well as possible before you start writing. Work out their voice, their unique perspective, their personality, and their importance to the story. All of this must come through in the first chapter to engage the reader. Also, make sure to reveal this character’s motivation and challenges early in the first scene to set the stage for what is to come.
Work in Conflict
Think about the central conflict or conflicts that your story revolves around and determine how you can use your first chapter to start building up to it, or at least reflect it in some small way. Remember, this initial first chapter conflict must be pertinent to the story.
Set the Stage
Characters need a space to act out the plot and readers need a sense of place to ground them in the story – thus the importance of setting. When a book is opened, readers expect to be immersed in a fictional world that engages all five senses. Done correctly, this makes the reader feel as if they are really in the midst of the story. Talk about engaged!
The first sentences and scenes of your opening chapter should plunge the reader into the world you created for them. Is this world cold or warm? Sunny or dark? Loud or quiet? What time of day is it? Is this world set on land or water? Is it present day, the future, or long ago past? Giving the reader a full sense of place and time from the beginning is a crucial element in a strong opening chapter.
Remember, the first chapter is where you go all out to engage your reader, so give it your all!