First Things First: Writing the First Chapter

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So, you’re ready to write, edit, or polish your first chapter. This is arguably the most important part of your book. It will determine if someone keeps reading or moves on to the next novel on the shelf. So, what should you do with this vital chapter?

Hone Your First Paragraph

This tip may not mean what you think it means. Although there are entire articles about crafting an opening sentence (even on this blog!), it’s easy to put too much pressure on that one line of text and psych yourself out. No doubt, your first sentence is important, but the first paragraph as a whole is more important in the grand scheme of things. When readers pick up a book to peruse, they usually read more than the first sentence, but most people only give an author a page or so to hook their attention.

Don’t try too hard. Skip the rosy prose and take a step back. You’re telling a story, and the first paragraph is simply the first step on that adventure. Make sure it does its job, but focus on function rather than fashion.

Introduce a Character Worth Knowing

Stories are emotional experiences, and characters channel that experience for readers. The audience slips into someone else’s mind, someone else’s skin, and then they go on an adventure together. To engage readers quickly, give them someone they would want to spend many hours living through. Your first chapter must make it easy for readers to bond with your protagonist.

Put the Conflict in Motion

Your first chapter has a lot to do in a short page count, but launching conflict should sit very high on your to-do list. Begin your story right away, and pick a moment in your plot that will get things moving in some way from page one. Remember, there is a lot of story in your head that should be backstory.

Get your readers interest and set up some stakes. What is this story about? Why should readers be worried for the protagonist? Stoke the tension and layer on some fear early to set the hook in your readers’ imaginations.

Sell Your Setting

Help your readers orient themselves. You don’t need to give a street address and or a description of the stained kitchen laminate, but let readers know where the story takes place. Although setting isn’t mentioned as often as plot and character when authors discuss the most important elements of storytelling, it’s still vital to great storytelling. What would the hobbits be without the Shire? Jane Eyre’s confusion and emotional turmoil would be a lot less moving without the drafty manor, run-down school, and sweeping moors surrounding her.

Give Readers What They Want

Genres help readers find what they want in labyrinthine libraries and Kindle e-book lists. If you’re writing in a particular genre, make sure to make that clear in the first chapter. Give scifi fans space, time travel, aliens, or whatever genre elements your book features early on. Writing a thriller or murder mystery? Your first chapter needs a death, a killer, or at least an allusion to one. Historical fiction should have a clear time, place, and connection to actual history, like a recent battle from the Civil War, soldiers marching through town, mentions of the current king, political conflicts, etc. Give genre readers the things they picked up your book to enjoy.

No two books are the same, and no opening chapters should be the same, either. Make sure to incorporate these elements in your first chapter, but remember that this is your story. Add your own voice, set your own stakes, and showcase your characters and world as only you can!

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1 Comment

  1. All good points, but none of this should even be considered until the rest of the chapters are written. Arguably, the most important thing is finishing. You can edit the perfect first chapter for years when you could have been finishing novels with imperfect first chapters that people can enjoy. Practice is all that matters and exposure to an audience and publishing are the end-all, be-all. Thankfully, there are no barriers between an author and their audience.

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