You know what they say about first impressions. Well, it’s true in writing as well. If you don’t wow your reader in the first chapter, or at least make it compelling, they won’t read chapter 2. In fact, if you don’t have a great first paragraph and opening line…they might not even buy the book. There’s no doubt that it’s crucial to write a great first chapter. Here’s a checklist of things to include.
Great Opening Paragraph
Not only do you need a great opening paragraph, but your opening line needs to shine too. Your first line and paragraph should set the scene, hint at character, allude to conflict, and set the mood or tone. In other words, there’s a lot riding on those first few lines. Before you kill yourself making them perfect, realize you can go back and edit them after you write the whole book. If you don’t plot much in advance, you might not be aware of where you’re going in the story. It’ll be ten times easier to really nail it once you know your protagonist and what actually happens.
That said, read the first lines of some of your favorite novels. I usually find it astonishing how well the author was able to accomplish the list of objectives for those opening remarks. Again, don’t stress now but be aware you’ll need to nail the beginning.
A Compelling Character
The first chapter is your chance to get your reader interested in your protagonist. It should open with an important character, ideally, your main character. Often you want this character to be sympathetic, even if they’re actually a bad guy. You want the reader on the main character’s side.
Two ways to make your character compelling is to make them interesting, funny, or a victim of some sort. In other words, the circumstances of their life can make a character compelling. The other way is to give them a unique voice. Voice to the way the whole story is told. But if the character narrates the novel, that character’s voice becomes extra important. The way the story is told and the unique way your characters see the world make a novel engaging.
Start the First Chapter in the Right Place
Opening your novel in the middle of the action is a great way to suck your reader into your book. Contemporary readers don’t want or expect a lot of exposition up front. They generally want the action to be in the midst of taking place by the time chapter one opens. The conflict of the book should start to take shape or at least be hinted at by the end of the first chapter. Your hero or heroine is about to embark on a journey. What is it?
End the First Chapter with a Hook
Your first chapter must end with a hook that makes your reader want to continue on. The most practical way to do this is to end it with a question or with conflict. That will make a reader want to know what happens next. The hook also draws the reader into the world you’ve created, so that means your setting should be evocative, the magic of your fantasy absorbing, or the crime gripping.
Remember, if any of this isn’t perfect in the first draft, don’t sweat it. But do circle back to your first chapter once your manuscript is complete. If there is any chapter that should be polished to a high gloss before you send it out into the world, it’s the first one.