The importance of your novel’s first chapter cannot be overestimated. It’s the chapter that introduces your book to the world – the chapter that needs to hook readers, agents and publishers alike. (No pressure or anything!)
Unfortunately, there’s no predetermined formula for a perfect first chapter. Every story is different, and so is every opening chapter.
However, there are certain elements that most successful first chapters share, and it’s those that should serve as guidelines to you when you’re writing the opening of your book.
Virtually nobody is able to knock out a flawless first chapter on their first draft.
You may need to come back and include some of these elements during your rewrite or edit. But even if you haven’t started writing yet, it’s worth keeping the following things in mind to ensure you’re on the right track.
Here are seven of the most important elements to include in your novel’s first chapter.
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1. A great opening paragraph
Ahhh, the opening paragraph… Those short few lines that can make or break a reader’s first impression of your book.
The first paragraph, and even the first sentence, are both of vital importance. They need to grab your reader immediately, taking them by the hand and guiding them into the world of your story.
Often, the most effective way to do this is through a clear, relatively simple opening paragraph.
Don’t go trying to wow your readers with an amazingly lyrical first sentence, or a complex, multilayered first paragraph. If you try too hard to do this, your opener will often come off as forced, confusing, or unappealing.
It’s best to stick to a solid, simple first paragraph that will grab readers’ attention or pique their interest.
A technique many writers use is to come back and write the opening paragraph last, after they’ve finished writing the rest of the story.
Don’t waste time at the start of your writing process trying to come up with that magical first line. Instead, come back with a fresh perspective after having completed the story. Then you can spend as long as you like working on perfecting your opener.
If you’re struggling, search for inspiration in the first paragraphs of your favourite books, or check out a list of the best first sentences in literature.
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2. A compelling character
In any novel of any genre or style, characters are key. It’s your story’s characters that will get your readers invested and make them want to keep reading.
No matter whether your story is told from one point of view or several, the opening chapter must introduce a compelling, important character. It’s that character who your reader will follow – that character whose hand they will take as they’re led into the story.
The best way to ensure that you introduce a compelling character in Chapter One is to get to know that character as well as possible before you start writing. Work out their voice, their unique perspective, their personality, and their importance to the story.
If all this comes through in the first chapter, you’ll be well on your way to engaging your reader and getting them invested in your novel.
As Patricia C. Wrede points out:
It is the job of the first chapter to get your readers to care about the main character, or at the very least, to be interested enough in the character to keep reading.”
3. A strong voice
Narrative voice is such an important aspect of a novel, but it’s also one of the hardest to define and perfect.
Commanding, convincing, compelling, authentic – to engage readers, a writer’s voice must be all these things and more. And there’s no more important place for a strong voice to shine through than in a novel’s first chapter.
A novel’s voice is something like a singer’s – think of singers like Mick Jagger and Bob Dylan, who have no musical training but are instantly recognisable.
When people pick up a Rolling Stones record, it’s because they want access to that distinctive quality. They know that voice, they love that voice, and something in them connects profoundly with it.
Well, it’s the same way with books… An appealing voice achieves an intimate connection – a bond much stronger than the kind forged, intellectually, through crafted writing.”
This kind of unique voice is something that comes with time. You can’t force it; as King points out, ‘intellectually crafted writing’ is all well and good, but it won’t forge that deep connection your readers are searching for.
Unique voice comes out naturally the more you write, so make sure you write a lot, and allow your narrative voice to develop itself.
When the time comes, your editor will help to draw out and clarify that voice even further, especially in the first chapter of your novel.
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4. A well-chosen starting point
There’s one question everyone needs to ask themselves when revising their novel: does the story start in the right place? There are so many options for where in the story to begin your novel, and the choice you make is crucial.
If you’re not sure what your starting point should be, think about what sets the action of your core story in motion.
Your novel should begin with something to intrigue and engage the reader: an inciting incident, a significant event, a mystery or problem that needs to be solved.
If you’re really having trouble, just pick a scene you know you’re going to include and use that as your tentative starting point. Remember you can always come back later and add, remove, or shift around scenes.
To get an idea of the different kinds of possible starting points, take a look at what the authors of your favourite stories have chosen as starting points.
J. K. Rowling, for example, begins the Harry Potter series at the very beginning, the inciting incident of the story: the day baby Harry vanquishes Voldemort, becomes The Boy Who Lived, and is delivered, now an orphan, to his aunt and uncle’s place.
The story then jumps ten years ahead to a point just before Harry discovers he is a wizard, but the set-up in the first chapter is a compelling, mysterious, and necessary introduction to the wizarding world and the story’s main character.
In Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, on the other hand, the story begins virtually at the end.
First-time readers will not know this, of course, but the novel’s first chapter takes place at a pivotal, tense, critical moment. Tyler Durden has a gun to the main character’s mouth, and the pair are standing on top of a building that is apparently about to explode.
The opening scene is fast-paced and set to a countdown, which draws the reader immediately in. However, the second chapter we’re hurled backwards in the story, to a different point that played its part in leading to the intense situation in the first chapter.
This time-jump, and the retrospective that the first chapter provides, piques the curiosity of the reader, making them want to figure out the puzzle of how things got to where they are.
Whatever you choose as a starting point, make sure it does one vital thing: makes the reader want to know more.
5. An authentic sense of place
No matter what kind of novel you’re writing, it’s a good idea to introduce a sense of place in your opening chapter.
Readers want to open a book and experience instant immersion. They want to experience the setting with all five senses and feel as if they are really there, right in the midst of the story.
No matter what genre you’re writing in, this can be achieved through solid world-building. Take the first chapter of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, for example. The first sentence alone does a great deal to introduce you to the world:
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
We see the brightness, feel the cold; we presume we are on Earth, as the month of April is referenced – but it’s not Earth as we know it, of course, because there’s no such thing as thirteen o’clock!
The rest of Orwell’s first chapter goes on to describe the setting in more detail, all while introducing us to the main character, creating a sense of tension, and enticing the reader to find out exactly what’s going on in this strange world.
However, you need to be wary when it comes to world-building in your opening chapter. Creating a sense of place is one thing, but overwhelming your readers by getting bogged down in detail is another – and it’s a mistake many authors tend to make.
Remember that you have the whole rest of the book to continue setting the scene and placing readers in the world of your story. The opening chapter should provide just enough detail to get readers interested and make the world feel authentic.
6. A burgeoning conflict
Conflict drives fiction, and it must be present in your opening chapter. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to open with a fight or a battle or a cataclysmic event (though you can choose to do this if you wish!).
At the very least, the promise of conflict must be present in your first chapter – an underlying sense that some interesting problems are in store to drive the story forward.
To introduce this sense to your first chapter, think about the central conflict or conflicts that your story revolves around.
You don’t necessarily have to introduce this larger conflict immediately, but your first chapter is a great place to start building up to it, or at least reflecting it in some small way.
Begin the book with conflict. Big, small, physical, emotional, whatever. Conflict disrupts the status quo. Conflict is drama. Conflict, above all else, is interesting. Your first chapter is not a straight horizontal line. It’s a jagged driveway leading up a dark mountainside – and the shadows are full of danger.”
7. A hook for your intended readership
Every first chapter should contain a hook.
Take a look at yours. What aspects are there that will make people want to keep reading? What will draw them into the story and convince them that this is a book they’ll enjoy? What does your book do differently to all the other books in its category?
Whatever your hook may be, you’ll need to ensure that it is aimed towards your intended readership.
Writing fantasy? Make sure that magic pervades your novel’s first pages. Writing crime? Be sure that an actual crime or criminal has been introduced, or at least alluded to, in your opening chapter.
Your first chapter must also reflect the tone and genre of the rest of the story. It’s no good writing a fast-paced, thrilling, action-packed first chapter if the rest of the book slides into a contemplative, lyrical tone with very little plot development.
Doing this will drive the right readers away and draw the wrong readers in, only to disappoint them when the rest of the story is nothing like the first chapter.
Stay true to your genre, your style, your tone, and your voice, especially in your first chapter. You’ll establish a consistent foundation on which to base the rest of your story, and you’ll attract the kind of readers you’re aiming to attract.
Writers – if you’re feeling a little stuck trying to write that perfect first chapter, remember that there are things not to worry about during your first draft! You can always come back and implement the above when you reach the editing stage.
Readers – what do you like to see in a novel’s first chapter? Feel free to share your thoughts with us in the comments below.