I’ve been working on the first chapter of my new book this week and I have to admit, it’s been so long since I’ve written one, I forgot how difficult–and even more, how important–they are. Eventually the first chapter will be the one that gets agents and readers interested in my book but right now, it has to get me interested in writing it! At this point, I don’t know my characters very well yet, and I’ve only just begun to touch the tip of my plot but still, this chapter has to be the catalyst to what eventually will be.
I hoped that somewhere in my constantly growing pile of books on writing craft, I would find an outline or some bullet points on what makes a first chapter work and what doesn’t. And so I did. Between Make a Scene, Revision & Self-Editing and a few of my favorite novels, I was able to put together an idea of what a successful first chapter looks like. Here’s what I came up with:
- Hook the reader. If someone were to pick your book off the bookshelf (or even more pressing, if an agent were to pick your submission out of the stack) how long do you think they’ll give you to intrigue them? Within the first sentence, or at the most, within the first paragraph, you have to get the reader interested because most of the time, that’s all you have. Shock them, wow them, surprised them but even more, create question in the reader’s mind that they feel compelled to answer. Who is this person with the witty observation? Why did that man just gun down the woman jogging peacefully along the street? Why does this person only have an hour to live? If the reader wants to know the answer, they’ll have to keep reading…
- Start with a disturbance that relates to the plot. Now that you have the reader’s attention, it’s time to show them why they need to keep reading. What’s going to happen in the next 200, 300, 400 pages? Why should they put aside hours of their life to follow your characters? Don’t tell them, show them. Throw your character into a pressing situation that allows the reader to see for themselves that the character (and the reader) is about to be taken on a ride. Get the tension brewing.
- Introduce the protagonist. A reader starts reading for the plot, a reader keeps reading for the characters. What makes your character unique and more importantly, why should we care? It’s a harsh question but it’s the question running through the reader’s mind. Do I relate to this character? Do I find them interesting? Why? Don’t hold back–pick out the most important character traits and give your character a chance to show them off. Have your protagonist interact with another character, one that brings out a certain side of them. Give your readers a glimpse into the protagonists personal history without giving away too much. Make the reader want to know more.
- Set the mood and present the theme. The beginning of the book lets readers know what to expect from the rest of the book. If it starts out dark and scary, they’ll expect the rest of the book to be dark and scary. If you begin with romantic themes, they’ll expect those romantic themes to continue throughout. How is your book going to make readers feel and what do you want them to take away from it when they finish? Start incorporating those elements now.
The first chapter has a lot of work to do but done well, it creates enough momentum to sail your reader through to the last page. But don’t worry (and I say this is much to myself as to you), it doesn’t have to be perfect the first time around–you can’t always know all of these things from the start. Once you’ve finished the first draft and you have a better sense of your story, you can (and should) go back to make sure your original ideas still apply. If you can fit all of these things into the first few pages of your story, there’s no doubt that your readers will happily slide right into your second chapter.