There is a lot of pressure on a novelist to write a perfect first chapter. These words, these scenes, these ten or fifteen pages will be the first impression a prospective agent, editor, or reader will have of your novel, and you want to make them count.
So, the question begs — what makes a good first chapter? What should the beginning of my story accomplish?
The short answer: your first chapter needs to set the scene, introduce the main character, introduce the conflict, and lead to the trigger/inciting incident of your story.
What does all that entail? Let’s get into it.
Tip #1: Think In Scenes, Not Backstory, Worldbuilding, or Endless Exposition
The first chapter is not the place to dump every conceivable fact about your character’s life until this point, and it’s not the place to painstakingly explain the economics or religious observances of your fictional fantasy world. Your first chapter is nothing more or less than the start of your story.
So, don’t think about anything else except that.
How does your story kick off? Plan a handful of scenes — real, complete scenes with beginnings, middles, and ends — with which to launch your story out of the starting gate.
Check out this previous Happy Writer post, 5 Features Every Chapter In Your Novel Should Have, for advice on writing good, strong chapters.
Tip #2: Introduce the Characters
Unless you want to try something artsy and fartsy, your protagonist should make a pretty significant appearance in the first chapter of your book. From the moment they open the book, your reader is looking for a character to connect to, and they will assume that whoever you introduce on Page One is going to be the person they will be following for the next three or four hundred pages. Unless it really, truly serves the story to start elsewhere, you should open with your protagonist.*
* There will always be exceptions to this rule. Game of Thrones begins with a handful of characters who are immediately killed by White Walkers; Harry Potter kicks off with Vernon Dursley being increasingly perturbed by strange people and suspicious mutterings, until Albus Dumbledore leaves a bundled up little Harry Potter on his doorstep. The White Walkers are crucial to A Song of Ice and Fire’s plot, and The Philosopher’s Stone’s first chapter does technically end with its protagonist set in place. If you do choose not to open your novel with your protagonist, be aware that it’s a risky choice, and you had better make it pay off.
Use your first chapter to introduce us to the protagonist and any secondary characters that could be important as the story goes on. Describe each character as sparsely or exhaustively as you like, and give as much or as little backstory as feels fitting and still keeps the story moving.
Have your characters banter, or argue, or joke around. Show them interacting like actual people — lying to each other, trying to impress each other, saying something stupid, doing something kind. It’s in how they interact with each other that characters will come alive for your readers, and the first chapter is the perfect place to show how your characters treat each other before the events of the story knock them all over the place.
Tip #3: Introduce the Conflict
There is no story without conflict. I had a friend once that said she hated conflict, and wished all books and tv shows could just be about characters enjoying calm, happy lives without everything getting all screwed up. That was a … nice idea … but … I say with all due respect … everything going great is not a story.
Stories need conflict to survive, and your first chapter needs some kind of conflict to keep the reader engaged in, and worried about, and connected to your protagonist. Give a hint of your character’s antagonist or antagonistic forces. If you want to save your villain’s introduction for later, at the very least give your character a secret they’re concealing, a lie they’re telling, or a problem they’re trying to solve. Expose your reader to your characters through dilemma and strife.
The first chapter’s purpose is to pull the reader into the story and get the gears of plot in motion. Don’t write a chapter in which your character sits in a room sighing as they think about all that has gone wrong in their life and lead them to this moment. Have them actively doing something and butting up against something, and have that something, whatever it may be, act as the first domino that sends your story flying.
Tip #4 Introduce (Or Directly Pave the Road For) The Inciting Incident
In nearly every movie you watch, the character is introduced in some compelling, sympathetic, maybe humorous way, and we’re shown what their average life is like — until about twelve to twenty minutes in, when something about the character’s life changes.
This rule applies to novels, too. We start off with a slice of normal life so that we might understand and appreciate the stakes when that normal life is thrown into upheaval. Maybe your average life section is three chapters long, maybe it’s three paragraphs. However your novel is paced, use the opening scenes and chapters to set up who your character is and what their normal life is like — and then change it.
If you’re following along with the Happy Writer’s Plotting In a Pinch Guide to Plotting Your Novel, your first chapter should begin your Glimpse of Regular Life, and while it doesn’t actually need to include the Inciting Incident, each scene in Chapter One should act as paving stones leading to the eventual turn of the plot.
Tip #5: Mirror Your Ending
Mirrors and parallels are a sneaky and satisfying way to plot your story. And there is nothing more satisfying than finishing a book and realizing that the final chapter parallels something from the first chapter and brings the story full circle.
The First Chapter should in some way mirror your final chapter. In events, in message, in one lasting image.
You can plan mirrors while plotting, but, in my experience, it’s far easier to insert parallels during the editing stages, when you’re super familiar with the story you’re writing and have a lot of material to work with. Maybe a line of dialogue is repeated, or the character returns to the location of the opening chapter as a changed person. Every story is going to be different. Just, keep your ending in mind as you write your first chapter, and think about ways you can connect the two chapters together.
Do you have any more tips for first chapters you would like to share? What’s your favorite opening chapter from any book you’ve read? Do you find writing the first chapter, or the last chapter the easiest? (For me, writing last chapters is WAY easier than writing first chapters.) Leave a comment below, let’s talk!
As always, happy writing!
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