How to Write a Good First Chapter: A Checklist

by Joe Bunting | 2 comments

For the writer, there’s nothing harder than writing the first chapter and final chapter of a book. It is here that all of your perfectionism rears its ugly head calling for a full halt to your progress. Here's a checklist on how to write a good first chapter to help you write an opening that grabs the reader and doesn't let go.

How to Write a Good First Chapter: Checklist

I’ve written and rewritten my first chapter dozens of times, and I’m not alone. Most writers struggle to figure out how to start their novel, and it makes sense. Your first chapter can make or break your book: with readers, agents, and publishers.

So then how do you do it? How do you write a good first chapter? In this post, I’m going to walk you through the seven things you need to accomplish in your first chapter, and give you a checklist that you can use in your novel.

Why Does It Matter So Much that a First Chapter Be Good?

My dad recently finished a new book and wants to submit it to agents. Dutiful son that I am, I helped him find a short list of agents on querytracker.com and talked him through their submission requirements.

Each of these literary agents’ submission requirements varied, but nearly all of them asked for the first few pages. Some wanted the first ten pages, while others asked for the first three chapters.

Agents, who often get thousands of submissions per month, will tell you how much those first pages matter. 

If those first pages don’t hook them, if the writing doesn't instantly capture their attention and make them want to read more, they’ll move on to the next submission.

That means if you want your book to be picked up by an agent and then a publisher, your first chapter needs to be good which means this chapter has a lot of heavy lifting to do, story-wise.

And that leads to a big question: What exactly do writers need to accomplish in their first chapter?

What is your First Chapter Checklist? 

7 Steps to Write a Good First Chapter: Checklist

How do you write a good first chapter? If you touch each of these things, you’re sure to hook the reader and create a strong foundation for your entire  book.

1. Set the scene through physical movement

Before you can get into the action and drama of a scene, the reader needs to know when and where they are. Publishers, agents, and readers alike don’t enjoy being thrown into the middle of a disorienting action scene. Instead, they prefer to let the scene build up to a climactic moment using the six elements of storytelling (see #6), beginning with a brief amount of exposition.

The best way to set the scene is not through description, which readers, agents, and publishers alike find off-putting in the first sentences of the first scene. It's also not through dialogue, which leaves readers confused—“wait, who’s talking?”

Instead, begin with a character making some kind of physical action through the space that reveals the broader context of the scene.

2. Introduce the protagonist

Your protagonist is the lens through which you tell your story, so introduce them to the reader in the very first scene.

But it’s not enough for the reader to simply see the protagonist. We have to like them enough to want to follow them for the rest of the story. 

That doesn’t mean you can’t have a protagonist who is flawed or even evil. It does mean we have to sympathize with them.

Here are seven tried-and-true ways to get your reader to sympathize with your characters. I recommend picking at least one to use in your first chapter, and three in your first few chapters.

The 7 Characteristics of Sympathetic Characters

  1. Takes action. Show your protagonist being proactive. Show them making a hard choice when faced with a dilemma and taking action to get what they want. 
  2. Treated unjustly. Show your character being bullied, persecuted, treated unfairly, or the victim of injustice. 
  3. Shows competence. Readers are interested in people who are really good at things. Don’t hide your protagonist’s light under a bushel. Let it shine!
  4. Has friends. We’re attracted to people who show that they already have other people who like them. Show your protagonist is likeable by surrounding them with other interesting characters from the beginning.
  5. Does a good deed. “Save the cat,” as Blake Snyder says. By helping someone in need, your protagonist establishes themselves as “the good guy,” despite any other negative qualities.
  6. Has a quirk. Quirks are memorable things that let us create an instant visualization of someone, like Harry Potter’s scar on his forehead, Ron Weasley’s bright red hair, or Hermione’s frizzy hair. Quirks are especially important for side characters, but a simple quirk helps us quickly get to know a protagonist.
  7. Secret vulnerability. Everyone has a secret, whether it’s a phobia like Bruce Wayne’s fear of bats, or Superman’s kryptonite, or Inspector Gamache’s terror of heights. By letting the reader in on your protagonist’s secret vulnerability, you create a bond that can last the entire story.

You can use these seven characteristics of sympathetic characters at any point in your story for any character, even your villains. They are like candy for readers, and will always yield compelling characters. 

However, these characteristics are most important to use in the first chapter when you need to quickly create a connection with your protagonist. In fact, you could argue that this is the whole goal of the first chapter.

3. Establish the Point of View (POV)

What is your story's point of view? Are you going to choose third person limited, third person omniscient, first person, or some other POV?

Establish that strong voice in the first chapter and don't change it!

Not sure? Read our ultimate point of view guide.

4. Set the genre 

Establish the type of story you’re writing from the beginning. From the first scene, your reader should know whether this is a science fiction story, a crime novel, a horror novel, or a love story. Research the genre and know the conventions you'll need. 

5. Set the value scale

In the same way, establish the value scale that your novel will move on. There are traditionally six value scales in story, and each of these relates to a particular type of story.

  • Life vs. Death: Action, Adventure
  • Life vs. a Fate Worse than Death: Thriller, Horror, Mystery
  • Love vs. Hate: Love Story, Romance
  • Accomplishment vs. Failure: Performance, Sports
  • Maturity vs. Naivete: Coming of Age
  • Right vs. Wrong: Temptation, Morality

Depending on which story type you’re telling, make sure your first scene is set on that scale.

For example, in a love story, make sure the story event occurring in the very first scene deals either with love or hate. Or in a coming of age story, set it in a moment of great immaturity. 

Read our full article on all nine types of stories if you need more help with this step. 

6. Set the stakes

Once your value scale is set, create some kind of movement, ideally moving to either the very bottom or very top of that scale.

For example, in an action story, have a moment where your protagonist is almost sure to die.

Or in a love story, begin in a place of complete hatred between the principle characters.

By setting the stakes early, you let the reader know what to expect (and how you’re going to play with those expectations). 

7. Follow the 6 Elements of Storytelling

Every successful scene, act, and story has six elements that make it work. They are:

The most important of these six is the dilemma, when a character is faced with a difficult choice between two equally good or equally bad options. 

This dilemma is what causes the movement of the scene along your value scale and what creates the essential drama.

All that’s to say, make sure your first chapter has each of these, but especially the dilemma!

What About Books With Prologues?

For books that have a prologue, they may not achieve all of these things below in the first chapter.

The prologue might be set in a different location or time period from the main story. They might introduce a different character than your protagonist, or introduce the protagonist but at a different time in their life. They might be written in a different point of view than the rest of the story (but remember to be consistent throughout your book once the story starts!).

That said, the prologue should still introduce the reader to the journey ahead, and these seven elements. are effective ways to do that. Consider using each of them as you can.

The Essentials of a Good First Chapter

Don’t be a perfectionist with your first chapter, especially if you’re in the first draft of your writing process.

First drafts are hard. First drafts of first chapters are really hard.

Don’t try to write a publishable, award-winning, NY Times-bestselling first chapter the first time you sit down to work on your new story.

Instead, just do the work.

Set the scene with action.

Introduce your protagonist in a sympathetic way so your readers can fall in love with them.

Set the genre and value scale.

Hit each of the six elements.

If you do that, you’ll have a strong first chapter that you can make even better in revision. Before you know it, you'll be on your way to an irresistible chapter!

Does your first chapter meet all of these steps to writing a first chapter? Let us know in the comments.

PRACTICE

Put the first chapter checklist to use with your story.

Go back and review a first chapter that you’ve written. Or if you haven’t written a first chapter yet, outline a new one!

Does it hit all seven steps of the checklist? Which of the seven characteristics of sympathetic characters does it touch on? What is it missing? What can you change to make sure you hit all of the steps?

Take fifteen minutes to write, then share your work in the Pro Practice Workshop (and if you’re not a member yet, you can join). And don't forget to leave feedback for your fellow writers!

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Joe Bunting is an author and the leader of The Write Practice community. He is also the author of the new book Crowdsourcing Paris, a real life adventure story set in France. It was a #1 New Release on Amazon. Follow him on Instagram (@jhbunting).

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2 Comments

  1. Terri Lorrain

    Joe, I love this post – thanks for publishing it! Just a little glitch for me, I’m struggling to understand this bit from Step 1, the last part of the last paragraph: . . . “through the space that reveals the broader context of the scene.” I don’t get what you’re saying here, Joe; can you describe your meaning differently so I understand it? Thanks!!

    Reply
  2. janis c white

    Excellent and well written article for an aspiring writer.
    Thank you for sharing your knowledge.

    Reply

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