Let me paint a scene for you.
You’ve just had The Idea—a concept for a book that’s so creative, so unique, so gosh-dang brilliant it sends you scrambling for your notebook or clambering into your favorite typing chair.
It’s got everything: action, suspense, intrigue, and a beating human heart that you just know will resonate with readers across the country. This is my big hit, you think to yourself. This is the one. This is the novel that will change the world.
So to heck with planning, you say. This is too big to sit on; you’ve got to get your story on paper right away. So you open your notebook. Your pencil is sharpened and poised. The blank page beckons…
…and that’s when you realize the terrible truth.
Even though you’ve got the whole rest of the story mapped out in your head, you don’t know how it begins.
How are you going to write the Great American Novel if you can’t even write Chapter One?
The Overwhelming Importance of Your First Chapter
Let me be completely clear: there’s nothing more essential to the success of your novel than the quality of its first chapter.
Think of your book as a delicious gourmet meal at a five-star restaurant. Your title and cover are the dish as written on the menu. Your back-cover synopsis is the sumptuous odor wafting off the hot plate. But your first chapter—that’s the first bite. That’s what tells your eater, er, reader that your book is exactly what they’ve been craving.
But for something so important, actually writing a knockout first chapter can be almost forbiddingly challenging.
With so much riding on its success, both first-time authors and experienced story-crafters can get intimidated by the blank page. After all, it’s not just readers your opening pages have to impress: both literary agents and submissions editors often request first chapters as a metric to gauge a book’s merits. No wonder authors crack under the pressure.
So how do you move forward?
5 Parts of an A-Grade First Chapter
Crafting a killer opening to your novel doesn’t have to be such a daunting task. Every first chapter needs to include certain ingredients that introduce your story and characters and set up events to come.
And so, for those of you out there just beginning future bestsellers of your own, these are the 5 tasks your book needs to accomplish before you even think about writing Chapter Two.
1. Begin with a Showstopper
If the first chapter is the most important part of your book, then the first sentence is the most important part of your first chapter.
This is your chance to show your readers you mean business. Hook them. Ensnare them. Tease them. And above all, compel them to read on.
The foremost—no, the only—goal of the first sentence of a novel is to get your reader to read the second sentence of the novel.
And how is this done? Ask a question.
I don’t mean to literally end your opening sentence with a question mark—though it’s been done, and to varying levels of success. No, your job is to create a question in your readers’ minds, a question that the novel promises will be answered in the pages to come.
In fact, the best and fastest way to learn to accomplish this trick is to watch a master in action. All throughout literature’s, ahem, storied history, world-class authors have been one-upping each other with truly righteous opening lines.
Here’s one of my favorites:
“The Man in Black fled across the desert, and the Gunslinger followed.”
Pretty radical, huh? That’s from Stephen King’s The Gunslinger, and it introduces not only its source novel but an entire epic fantasy series—one that’s seven books long. It’s one of the most famous opening lines in modern genre fiction, so let’s break down why it works.
For one, this opening line introduces immediate conflict—specifically, a pursuit relationship between the hero and villain. Immediately readers want to know: why the Man in Black is fleeing, and why is this Gunslinger fellow hot on his heels?
Two, this single sentence immediately cultivates an air of mystery. By the naming conventions of a “Gunslinger” and a “Man in Black,” we’re immediately reminded of Western fiction, but the capitalization of the two titles suggests something more is afoot.
It’s almost as though these two men aren’t men at all but concepts, higher representations of good and evil—which, of course, is what they ultimately are. But in order to find that out, you’ve got to read six more books. And by that time, the matchless Mr. King has you hooked.
If your opening sentence can accomplish even half of what Stephen King’s achieves, you’re well on your way to success.
So remember: to sell your story from the first sentence, you’ve got to pique your readers’ curiosity—and come out swinging like Mike Tyson.
2. Introduce a Compelling Character
You’ll notice, dear reader, that I didn’t say “protagonist” here. Hold on to that thought—I’ll return to it in a moment.
No matter what genre of novel you’re writing, your characters should always be front and center. They’re what your readers care about—no matter how interesting your plot or fictional world may be, if you don’t populate them with interesting people, audiences will get bored—and quick. Your characters need to relatable, compelling, and interesting…all in the first chapter.
In other words, introduce us to people we can’t help but care about.
Now, while some story experts believe you should always introduce your main character in Chapter One—and I agree, in many (but not all) cases—this isn’t a rule writ in stone. In fact, thousands of wonderful novels have begun by following a secondary character in a kind of “cold open.”
Consider the example of the crime thriller: Many stories in this genre begin with some horrible crime being committed—usually Murder Most Foul. The first characters we meet, therefore, are actually the victims of the crime, not the hardboiled detective or intrepid reporter who will eventually solve their murders.
But if the author has done his or her job, these tragic victims will be well-enough established that we’ll care for them—enough, at least, to want their deaths avenged.
But no matter which characters you choose to open your novel with, the key to making them instantly relatable is to know as much as you possibly can about them before you even begin writing. Give them names. Strong personalities. Interesting backstories. Do brief character sketches for every character you want to appear in your Chapter One, even if they don’t appear anywhere else.
If you want your readers to care about these people, you’ve got to care about them, too—and that calls for a little extra elbow grease.
3. Identify Square One
Where does your story begin?
Plots are built on conflict and change, after all—so in order for things to change, you’ve got to establish a status quo first.
This is your Shire, your Outset Island, your Tatooine… This is your “Ordinary World,” the peaceful and cozy state of things your heroes must leave behind to take up their quest.
But “square one” isn’t merely a setting. In fact, while establishing a strong sense of place is important early in a novel, it’s more important to keep your focus on your characters as much as humanly possible.
Chapter One needs to establish not just where your characters live before the story kicks into gear, but how they live. Establish routines. Habits. Careers. Relationships and rivalries.
Here’s your goal: do as much as possible to paint an intimate, compelling portrait of daily life for the people who populate your novel—before the events of your plot change their little lives forever. That way, when they depart on their adventure at last, the quest will seem much larger and more dangerous because we know just what your characters are leaving behind.
4. Give Us Action
But it’s not enough to cram a bunch of cool characters into your first chapter. Unless something actually happens to them, you haven’t written a book—you’ve built a zoo.
In traditional novel structure, not only does the book as a whole follow an arc of rising and falling action, but each chapter has a sort of “mini-arc” within it, almost acting as a self-contained story with its own beginning, middle, and end.
That means that the novel gets about one plot-beat per chapter, with your characters encountering and overcoming an obstacle—or failing to overcome it—by the chapter’s conclusion.
As it happens, first chapters get a very specific kind of plot-beat all to themselves—and if you’ve ever taken a creative writing course, you probably already know what it’s called:
The Inciting Incident.
Joseph Campbell terms it the “Call to Adventure.” Dungeons & Dragons players know it as “getting a quest.” It’s the first major plot point in your narrative—and it’s whatever it takes to get your characters off their hineys and off on their grand mission to Save the Day.
Think of Dorothy’s house getting whirled away by a cyclone in The Wizard of Oz or Arnie Cunningham finding and buying the titular Plymouth Fury in Christine. The Inciting Incident shatters the illusion of the “Ordinary World,” allowing your characters to shake off the dust and enter the narrative proper.
Like your opening sentence, your Inciting Incident should also ask a question—and the rest of your novel should act as the answer. In the case of The Wizard of Oz, the question is “How will Dorothy get home to Kansas?” In Christine, it’s “What’s up with that spooky car?”
And without giving too much away, your first plot point should also foreshadow the last; the beginning plants the seeds of the end. Essentially, this means establishing a “win condition” for your narrative early on, and that means stakes.
5. Establish the Stakes
Here’s one thing I’ve learned in my [number redacted] years of writing and editing fiction: readers don’t like to be jerked around.
“So what?” they ask when confronted by a weak or ambiguous plot point. “Why does this matter? I’m very busy—you’d better not be wasting my time.”
So in order to satisfy your hustling and bustling audience, you’d better get to the point as quick as possible. Answer the “So what?” question the strongest way you can—by establishing the stakes of your narrative in a big way.
Stakes are why your story—and the actions of your characters—matters. What happens if your hero can’t accomplish his goal? What happens if the villain wins? If the day isn’t saved? Make sure that success and failure are tied to compelling consequences, and that these dangers are established in the very first chapter of your story.
In an epic fantasy, the stakes might be that an evil overlord will continue to subjugate and enslave helpless villagers unless the hero and her friends are able to stop him. In a police procedural, a serial killer will continue to hunt and dismember suburbanites if the detectives can’t learn his identity and track him down.
But a story’s stakes don’t always have to be so global, or so gruesome. Personal stakes can be just as compelling—so long as they’re attached to a compelling character.
For instance, in my novel, Daughter of Man, my narrator’s primary goal is to make sure the titular character’s story is remembered properly by future generations. His stakes are admittedly small—but if he fails to relate his tale engagingly enough to the right person, his friend’s story will be forgotten forever.
My point is that no matter how large or small your stakes are, the onus is still on you to make your readers care about them. Be as silly or morbid or grandiose or domestic as you like—just compel us to keep turning the pages until we know how things turn out.
Folks at home: do you have any handy dos and don’ts for writing first chapters? We’d love to hear them! Join the conversation in the comments section—or just tell us your favorite opening line from a great book.
And if you’re looking for additional help starting your story, we’ve got just what you need:
- Naming Your Novel: How to Choose a Fiction Title That Fits
- How to Write Better Dialogue Tags: Improve Your Novel with Great Dialogue
- How to Make Time to Write a Book: 6 Ways to Make Writing Happen