The first chapter of a novel is arguably the most important—if a reader isn't hooked, she won't keep reading. And if that happens, nothing else you write matters.
Think of your first chapter as the tip of the iceberg—sure, there’s a ton more to your story that readers may not be seeing yet…but that’s what the rest of the manuscript is for. In the first chapter, you just need enough to hook the reader and get them curious about what’s going on under the water.
How to Write Your First Chapter
But what does it take to create that hook? I thought a lot about this as I wrote and edited my first novel. And my conclusion is that, while there are many different ways to creatively introduce a story in the first chapter, there are three key things a first chapter must do to pull a reader in.
1. Establish the main character
The protagonist is the reader’s conduit into the story. So you’ve got to make it easy for readers to make this connection—quickly.
This is simple to say, sure, but can be harder to execute. How can you be sure your protagonist hits the mark? Start your story from a place where your lead character is vulnerable or shows their strengths.
For example, it’s easy to immediately feel for Harry Potter because of how terrible his aunt and uncle are to him. It’s easy to love Katniss Everdeen right away because of her pragmatic strength as a provider and protector for her sister. Even unlikeable characters need to be able to make a connection with readers.
2. Establish a setting
Nothing is worse than starting a story and not being sure of where you are. Readers need firm ground to stand on, so give them a strong sense of the setting from the get-go. It’s doesn’t have to be the extensive rules of the entire realm, but offer strong cues for how the world works, and a concrete understanding of its most immediately relevant elements.
For a great example of first-chapter world building, take a look at Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. While most of the book is about humanity’s invasion of a new world, the opening chapter shows Martian culture through a single couple, revealing all that is about to be lost.
3. Establish tension
The first chapter may be too early to roll out your story’s major conflict, but there should be tension here that’s relevant to what’s to come.And if your story is not clearly moving toward something, why’s a reader going to keep reading?
Divergent offers a good example of this. Its opening scene of Beatrice getting her once-a-month haircut is, at first glance, quiet. But internally, Beatrice is debating whether this quiet life is what she wants for herself moving forward—and whether she can let go of her world’s value of selflessness to find something that would make her happier at her upcoming Choosing Ceremony. Talk about stakes.
The Goal of Chapter One is to Get the Reader to turn to Chapter Two
First chapters can be tough. You’ve got to quickly give readers what they need to invest, without overwhelming them. Crafting that perfect hook is a fine line between information and holding back. But when you focus on the right elements, making that first chapter a knockout gets a little simpler.
What book can you think of that hooks you from the beginning? Let us know in the comments.
Take fifteen minutes and start writing a first chapter for your next story, making sure it includes these crucial elements. How can you incorporate them all? What must you include in this chapter to draw in the reader? What’s better left for later? When you’re done, share your chapter draft in the comments!
By day, Emily Wenstrom, is the editor of short story website wordhaus, author social media coach, and freelance content marketing specialist. By early-early morning, she is E. J. Wenstrom, a sci-fi and fantasy author whose first novel Mud will release in March 2016.