Part 1 - Does Your First Chapter Work?
That’s a question we often ask ourselves. Does my first chapter work? Is it interesting or intriguing enough? Would it make the reader want to read the entire book?
The first chapter – indeed the opening sentence – needs to work if you want to grab the reader’s interest. It needs to make a statement. It needs to stand out in a huge crowd of other books. In fact, the first chapter needs to establish a number of things before you can consider whether it works or not.
So you’ve done a story/chapter outline, you have a solid plot, you have your characters sketched out, you’ve chosen the POV and know the genre and who the target audience is. So now you have to make that first chapter work – regardless of whether you write your story chronologically (in order) or whether you write out of sync. You still need to make an impact and you need to keep the reader interested from the moment of the opening sentence of the first chapter.
There are no hard and fast rules, but it’s wise to include an essential list of key things to ensure the first chapter works:
Grab the Reader
The first and last chapters are the most important chapters in a novel. The first chapter is vital and instrumental in grabbing the reader and the last shows a satisfactory conclusion. So that first chapter makes the difference between the reader instantly becoming immersed in the story or turning their nose up and moving on to another book.
The first few lines tell the reader – or the agent or publisher – the kind of writer you are and the quality of your writing. Sometimes we read the first paragraph and think ‘wow, that’s pretty amazing’ and it stimulates our interest and curiosity. We need to know more. We want to read on. And that means the writer has accomplished what he or she set out to do – they’ve grabbed the reader with their narrative style and voice and the unique way the chapter begins.
Openings can be notoriously difficult to get right and that’s because there is so much pressure to do so. You have to hook the reader, show them the main character, don’t forget the theme, and don’t use too much exposition...and on and on. No wonder writers have a meltdown before they’ve even written anything.
Of course, there are certain things to include that help make the first chapter stand out, but it doesn’t mean you have to include absolutely every single thing. Include the things that are relevant, which is why it’s better to write down these elements first and plan the first chapter. It takes away that unnecessary pressure. And don’t overthink it, otherwise it will feel forced.
Read the openings of lots of novels to get a feel of how they work.
The opener is as individual as the writer. And it can be written and rewritten in any order, for however long the writer wants, which is why writers spend a lot more time rewriting and tweaking the first chapter than any other part of the book.
Don’t Start at the Beginning
In other words, bring the reader to the story at the last possible, pivotal moment.
Most stories start at a beginning and take a couple of chapters of boring exposition and backstory before anything interesting happens, so it could be chapter three before the story actually means something. So don’t start at the beginning. Start at the moment of crisis, at the moment the main character’s life changes, at that moment when it all goes wrong for him or her – a moment that acts as a catalyst to kick the story off.
That’s the start of the opening chapter.
Introduce the Main Character
It’s the protagonist’s story, so it’s a priority to introduce them to the reader at the earliest possible moment, because if they don’t get that opportunity, they won’t know whose story it is, what’s happening or why and they won’t really care one way or the other when you do finally introduce the character in chapter two.
Other characters can follow any time, but make sure the star of the story appears in chapter one. That way the reader can meet the main character and they can get to know him or her and care about them, right from the start. They can follow their journey right to the end. That’s how you create immediacy.
If you create that from the start, the reader will want to keep reading to find out what happens to that character.
In the next part, we’ll look at some other elements that help make the first chapter interesting enough for the reader to want to read your book.
Next week: Part 2 - Does Your First Chapter Work?