A Killer First Chapter

Sometimes you look at a story and you just know how it needs to open. It’s the most obvious choice in the world, and it’s clear why no other option would work.

Unfortunately, that’s not often the case. Usually, the beginning to your book will take preplanning and rewriting and replanning and bit more rewriting, and all the while you’ll never quite be sure you chose the best spot to open to, or the right characters to introduce, or the proper setting.

Here are a few specific methods of thought for tackling your first chapter…

You can adjust these in any way you want, as well as combine them. Try looking through the first chapters of your favorite books or movies and pinpointing which basic thought processes are used in them.

The Mini Arc: The first chapter tells its own story.

As there are many smaller arcs within the overall arc of any story, so can there be in the first chapter. On the most basic level, this includes introducing a conflict, having your main character confront the conflict, and either overcome or fail in the moment of highest suspense. It can also involve its own antagonist, or the antagonist for the overarching story.

In The Action: A hero’s opening.

Draw the reader into your story by opening with a spot of action involving something your main character would typically do. Are they a tomb raider? Open with them raiding a random (or not so random) tomb. Are they a getaway driver? Open with them driving away from a crime. Are they pirate? Open with them boarding another ship. Are they a martial artist? Open with them in the ring.

This works quite well when your main character is already a fairly interesting person, who knows most of the skills they’ll need to tackle the book’s main plot. If your character is an average nobody, you may be better off using the next method.

The Inciting Event: An intriguing question.

Another way to draw your reader into the story is to present them with a mystery or a question. Get the plot rolling in the first chapter, and make the reader curious about where it’s going, what will happen along the way, and how it will all work out.

Send your main character on their quest for the ancient weapon. Let the antagonist kidnap them. Make them confront the viral outbreak turning people to zombies. Let them know their long lost relative is looking for them.

No matter how you decide to start your story, every first chapter needs to touch on a few specific things…

1. Setting. When and where does you story take place?

It’s just as easy to go overboard on your setting as it is to under establish it. The point is not to give the entire background of your world, country, community, or neighborhood, but to immerse the reader into that setting.

A good method is to stick to information and descriptions of the things the main character is experiencing in that moment. Set your first chapter in a place where the main character comes into direct contact with things and people important to your setting and story.

2. Theme. Your first chapter much feel like the rest of the book.

Whether or not you have a key theme your story is meant to argue for, or merely an undertone the rest of the story fulfills, your first chapter must be consistent with that. The tone should carry through from the opening line to the very end of the book, and if a main theme is present, it should be portrayed somewhere within the first chapter, the sooner the better.

3.The Main Character. The who and the why of the story.

With the exclusion of prologues, your main character should always be the first character introduced in your first chapter, the pivotal character for that chapter, and in the cases of first person or third person limited, the only point of view character for the chapter.

The main character’s personality should be allowed to shine through, and their primary goals, desires, strengths and flaws should be very clear. The beginning of their main character arc (the development they will go through over the course of the story) should be well established. By the end of the chapter, the reader should care about them in some way; perhaps not like them or wish to be friends with them, but take interest in what happens to them.

4. Conflict and Stakes, both immediate and long term.

The first chapter should include its own set of conflict and stakes; a situation the main character has to work through in which there are negative consequences for failing. It should also set up the primary conflict and stakes for the entire book.

This can mean establishing them completely, even introducing the main antagonist, if the situation allows. The key here is to make your main character, and by association your reader, invested in the conflict to come.

Or it can mean hinting at what’s to come with very precise foreshadowing. Here, you want your reader to realize that something big is approaching, and have a vague idea of what that might be, while still leaving enough mystery that they’re invested in finding out what the conflict to come is.

Some tips and tricks to get the ball rolling…

Not even I have followed all the content tips here in every one of my first chapters, but if you aren’t hitting most of them, you might have a problem.

  • Write a terrible first chapter for your terrible first draft. You almost certainly will have to rewrite it later, no matter how good you think it is when you start out. The goal of the first draft is to finish learning about your story so you can make it coherent during the next three, five, ten, or fifteen drafts.
  • If you can’t figure out where to start, write the earliest scene you know you’ll need to include in the book. It might end up working as your first chapter, or you may need to add a few chapters prior to it, but at least you won’t have to cut anything drastic.
  • Try to stay away from prologues during your first draft. If the final manuscript needs or would greatly benefit from one, add it on then, after the rest of the story is complete.
  • Dialogue is your friend. In most cases, good dialogue will immerse and hook the reader far better then anything else. (Try not to let the dialogue be your opening line though.)
  • Describe your main character. Don’t stop the story to pull out a paragraph long description of what your main character looks like, but don’t leave the reader with nothing to go on either. Try to pick at least a few key pieces of description to weave into the first chapter.
  • Introduce other major characters. Sometimes you won’t get the chance to introduce all or even most of your major characters in the first chapter, but when you can manage it, it’s always a good rule of thumb. Also try to stay away from introducing named characters who won’t play a large role in the story.
  • Hit the perfect balance for your opening line. A good opening line doesn’t need to wow anyone. What is does need to do is make them interested in reading the next line. The next line needs to make them interested in reading the line after that, and so on and so forth.
  • BUT don’t worry about the opening line during your first draft. If you can’t immediately think of something, write a big fat ‘put an opening line here’ and then move on.
  • Stay away from cliques. Research what scenarios are most often used in the openings of books in your genre (especially the bad or mediocre books) and try to avoid them. Above all, don’t open with your character waking up and getting ready for their day.
  • Beware of exposition. It’s best to have as little of it as possible in your first chapter. If your goal is to hook your readers with a story, don’t give them a textbook.
  • Don’t focus on backstory. Wait to start divvying out your character’s backstory until the reader is already actively invested in who they are. Sometimes a few quick mentions are necessary for the reader’s understanding of the first chapter, but it should never be the focus until later.

When in doubt: Reread the first chapters of the books you like. How many of these principles do they hit? Is there something they all have in common? Which of the plot lines are most similar to your story, and how do their openings differ from other openings?

At the end of the day, writing is an art. Just because you don’t follow any of the usual methods or tips, doesn’t mean you won’t create a fantastic first chapter. Be brave, and stick with your gut*.

*Unless your gut is telling you start your first chapter with your pov character waking up and describing themselves in the mirror. In this case, maybe your gut needs to be a little braver too.

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