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How to Write a Great First Chapter - A Great Opening

In your book-dreams, someone at the bookstore picks up your book-baby and flips to the very first chapter. They start reading.

Then what happens?

Either they scoff and abandon your baby on the shelves, or they lose track of time and look like a predator stalking your book in the middle of the aisle.

We want our book stalked.

So what separates those abandoned pieces from the ones that someone totes out of the store? (Or e-store. Hey, it’s the age of the ebook).

While it may take a lot for someone to even pick your book up, once you have them there, you can’t let them go!

Eyes a little droopy? Listen to me talk all about this topic by watching the video below!

A “hook” may be a term thrown around the interwebs very loosely, but your book literally needs to hook the reader’s fingers (or eyes) to the book with vicious resolve. This is your moment. This is the reason you’re hovering over your computer right now: so that this one person can pick up your book.

It’s your job not to let them down. And that starts from the very first words of your book.

Here’s my five tips to write a kickass first chapter!

Since this advice can apply to a wide range of genres, it’s important to establish what’s important in your particular story. While I write YA Sci-fi/Fantasy, you might write historical fiction or contemporary romance. The first chapter of each of these would be in stark contrast to one another.

The best way to figure this out is to break out your handy-dandy outline! Don’t have one? What the heck are you waiting for?! This outline should be like the holy bible to your novel, and once you have it completed, you’ll have a very clear idea about what’s important to your story and it’s characters. Don’t have a clear idea? Then your outline probably needs some work. I’ve written posts here and here about just that, and have a couple videos on my YouTube channel as well.

If your book is mostly about love, then have some heartbreak happen in the first chapter. If it’s about a detective who becomes a vigilante, open with a portion of the scene that first cracked his resolve - maybe that’s a murderer getting away because of poor evidence or police fluke. Make your first chapter a sneak peak on what the reader should expect for the rest of your novel.

For example: in my novel, a husband (and father) is gravely injured in a brutal attack. The rest of the novel centers on the adventure both of his children undertake to find whoever committed this crime. So what is my first chapter about? The crime of course! I snag readers with a flash-forward scene of the incident told from the perspective of another character. That way, when my readers get to the scene where it happens, there’s no redundant information, and I’ve successfully snagged my reader’s attention. Boom.

A first chapter doesn’t necessarily need action to make it hook your reader, but it does need to make make your reader curious. Even though curiosity killed the cat, curiosity is going to keep that reader turning the pages of your book! So how do you make someone curious about what is going to happen in your novel? A little bit of mystery. A pinch of intrigue. And one frog’s foot. Stir until smooth.

In all seriousness, you can accomplish some mystery by introducing a strange concept of your character’s life. Can your main character fly? Then talk about it! Not something you want to divulge straight away? Then talk about your character’s overwhelming fear of heights so that things get really interesting when he figures out he can fly. See what I did there? I expanded on an already existing part of the story so that everything stays relevant. If your character is looking to find the love of their life, then opening with a scene about a fear of heights won’t do much for your story. That is, unless she falls in love with a skydiving instructor…

Want another example? In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the Dursleys have a baby dropped on their doorstep. This is the plot point of the first chapter, but the majority of the chapter is all about introducing various strange magical elements. A lot of people walking around in cloaks (is this a new fashion trend?), cats reading maps (is Mr. Dursley crazy?), He-who-must-not-be-named has died and people are rejoicing (who is this person and why are people celebrating his death?). All of these elements are important to the story, and they’re introduced in the first chapter. Rather than telling these things throughout the story in summaries, we’re shown these odd things right at the onset of the story. Our curiosity keeps us reading. Take a page from J.K. Rowling (not literally, that’s illegal) and make those curious things important in the beginning!

A lot of us feel some kind of anxiety when we think about writing the first chapter. We hear all about there being so much that it needs to accomplish that it can get really daunting.

So why wait? Aren’t I just putting off the inevitable? I started writing my novel in July 2015. In the months since starting out, my writing has improved dramatically. Yes, I’ve been writing my entire life, but this is the first time I’ve written over 100k words on any one project.

By the time I got near the end of my story, I had a better idea of where exactly I should start out. I knew the essence of my story by this point and I knew what would make the reader care about my book. If you make really thorough outlines, you might be able to go ahead and jump into writing your first chapter. I made the mistake of having a “rough” outline for my novel, and ended up changing a lot of things. I was really happy that I waited to write my first chapter because now I know it includes something of importance to the story.

Also, if you have the first chapter jitters, you’re going to feel trapped on the first pages trying to get them just right. To get over that, I start a little ways in and after getting to know my characters and getting in the swing of things, I’ll go back and write it. While there is importance in the first chapter, it doesn’t have to be the first thing you write!

This is very important. Like life-changing, book-altering, success-making important. Since the first chapter decides whether or not someone continues to read your book, you need to make sure the point you start at is worthy of first chapter material.

I had an idea of where to start my book from the very beginning. I changed the opening scene, but I knew a long time ago where I wanted to start. How did I know this? I knew that I wanted to start just before the catalyst in my story (the father’s injury and the mother’s disappearance), so that my reader could properly orient themselves in the lives of my characters. You want to give just enough time so that your readers know when these events take place and where.

There is literally an infinite number of places you could start your book, but remember that it’s not the beginning of your entire story. You want your reader to believe they are a part of this world or the character’s life - and everyone’s life is ongoing. We don’t just wake up in the thick of things. Things are already happening, lives are already established, some conflict has already been resolved before we jump into the story. I think it’s useful to consider what your characters were like before their “first day of school” in your novel. Getting to know your characters like this enables you to add a depth to your first chapter. Your writing can convince the reader that this character is an actual person - and this is the first step to getting your reader to care about your character.

Worried about your chapter? Don’t let it cripple you! Basically, if it involves writing and freaking out, it’s totally normal. Instead of letting this worrying halt your writing completely, use it to make your writing better.

How can I possibly turn worrying into a good thing? If you’re concerned about the quality of your work, then you’re already halfway there. (Okay, maybe not halfway, writing does take a while). If you just throw some words on a page and lock it up on Createspace, then don’t be surprised if everyone thinks your work is garbage. Just like any part of your book, your first chapter needs to be edited. But how do you know what to edit? Your inner worry-wart will tell you exactly what to freak out about.

If you hammer out that first chapter but you’re still not sure about it, then ask people! Literally, everyone and their mother! Go to your critique partner, a close friend, your parents, your partner - ask them what they think, honestly and objectively, about this chapter. Tell them to treat the chapter like a stranger wrote it. Ask them if they would honestly keep reading it. Would they buy it? If not, then why? Dig for specifics. What didn’t they like? Was the dialogue boring? Swallow your pride (but don’t choke) and listen to what they’re saying. Sometimes you may have to pry the information out of them, so don’t be surprised if you find yourself a little violent when they finally tell you something of use. This is your baby, and it hurts when someone picks on them. Just remember: you asked for it. You need to know what’s wrong with your writing so that you can make it better. Since the first chapter is so important, feel free to ask everyone to critique it. All of these people don’t have to critique your entire manuscript, just ask them about the first chapter!

Remember: the important part of the first chapter is to grab your reader’s interest. Keep in mind who your target audience is and think about how you can make your story’s premise grip them from the start. Everyone will have differing opinions, so make sure you cast a wide net when asking for feedback on your first chapter. And you can always decide to ignore their suggestions if you don’t fully agree with them. It’s your novel after all!

Let’s talk! What importance do you hold with the first chapter in a book? Do you put books down after just one chapter or do you give them more time?

Some announcements for my own novel: In the coming weeks, I’ll be releasing the first three chapters of my novel! Sprinkled in there somewhere, I’m also going to reveal the characters that my novel centers around. Let me know if you have any ideas for how I should do the character reveals and if you want any particular information about them! I still can’t believe how far my story has come and I can’t wait to share it with you guys!

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