Further Reading on First Chapters
Read on for more advice on perfecting your first impression.
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How to Write a Great First Chapter
You’ve written (or you’re writing) a book. It is filled with tens of thousands of words, hundreds of pages, and dozens of chapters. But somehow, it’s those first words, that first chapter, that make all the difference.
There is no section more agonized over by authors than the first chapter. Without a great opening, writers can’t make it past agents or editors to get published. Readers will put our books down and move on. Even though we have a whole book to show off our storytelling and style, that first chapter is make or break. So here are five ways to make the beginning of your book count.
1. To prologue, or not to prologue? It’s complicated.
First things first: let’s talk about prologues. The editor and agent communities have a love/hate relationship with these pseudo-first chapters. When done well, they can be intriguing, compelling, and even haunting. When done poorly, they can give away too much of the story or come off as awkward and out of place.
As a general rule of thumb, I recommend writing the first chapter of your book in the voice that you’ll be using for all (or the majority of) your novel. This voice is generally the main protagonist—for multiple POV, pick the character who starts the story best.
When you finish writing your book, circle back around to that beginning. You may find that a prologue offers a unique way to frame the story, lending information, clues, or details the readers need at that point in the story. However, if the prologue only serves an authorial desire for something “deep” or “artistic,” then it doesn’t have a place in your book.
2. Begin with intention.
Your first chapter is the place to set the tone for your entire story. If you’re writing a thriller or action novel, start your readers off with an exciting scene. If you’re writing a memoir, start with a poignant or humorous anecdote.
There used to be more room for gentle, quiet first chapters, and in some cases, that style still works. But in the last decade, I’ve found most of the books I read start the story with a bang. I like to credit the rise in action-packed first chapters to Suzanne Collins. By the end of her first chapter (spoiler alert!) Katniss’s sister has been chosen as tribute from District 12, and you just know it’s going to be a non-stop crazy ride from there.
Not every book needs to begin with a fight scene or a dramatic monologue or a character on the run. But the first chapter does need to have stakes attached to it. Readers should feel compelled to keep reading, either because you’ve left them with a cliffhanger or because the setting or the protagonist are so fascinating that they just can’t help but turn the page.
3. Focus on the first line.
Let me say, a first line does not need to carry the weight of your entire story. However, it’s a perfect place to lay the groundwork for your writing, and I encourage you to use that sentence to capture the attention of readers from the get-go.
Take a look at some of your favorite books. What series of words did the authors choose to set the scene for their stories? Conversely, which books have first sentences that seem drab or unremarkable? Practice writing your opener half a dozen times in different ways, then ask a reader friend to take a look and see which line makes them want to read the book the most.
4. Don’t rush to introduce the world.
If you’re writing fantasy, sci-fi, or historical fiction—or even if your book is grounded in modern day reality—you don’t need to pack a universe of explanation into your first chapter. The core setting is important, but the details of your world can be teased out throughout the initial chapters. Readers can gather the material they need while letting their imagination do the rest.
Begin your story with an interaction your readers can relate to and understand. Write a scene that has easy entry points for people who are unfamiliar with your world, and try to avoid going overboard with unfamiliar words.
Take, for example, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. That first chapter actually begins with the “perfectly normal, thank you very much” Dursleys, rather than with the magic and wonder of Hogwarts. We muggle (or secret wizard) readers, could immediately connect with a portion of the world we knew before Professor McGonagall and the gang show up. Then, we get to see how magic unfolds against a backdrop we understand.
5. Clean it up.
Once you’ve worked out all the kinks and created a fascinating first chapter, make sure your writing is completely free of errors. Hire an editor, ask your friends to read it, run spellcheck and other programs—do whatever it takes to make that first chapter shine.
Why? If you’re submitting to agents or editors, a first chapter might be all they have time to review before saying yes or no. They may not fall one hundred percentin love with your story, but don’t let typos be the reason it’s not a match made in book heaven.
The same goes for self-publishing. Readers quite literally have millions of books to choose from, and unless you have the best character and best plot in the world, mistakes will drag their attention away and they’ll read something else.
For more helpful hints on writing your first chapter, check out the sidebar!
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Jillian Bergsma Manning is a contributing editor for Independent Publisher. She loves reading and writing but not arithmetic. Follow her on Twitter at @LillianJaine or on her blog at www.editorsays.com.