Struggling With The First Chapter

The first chapter of a book is the most important. The first pages will often help a reader decide if they want to keep reading or not. You have to hook the reader in and stop them from putting the book back on the shelf. I’m rewriting my first draft before I send it to beta readers, and I needed some help with my first chapter. Googling gave me ten articles with eight tips on writing the perfect first chapter. Every article had the same tips. None of them gave me what I needed.

Below are some open doors I see a lot in ‘How to write’ and why I don’t think they are as helpful as they think they are.

Hook the reader by creating the best first sentence

A good first sentence is a great hook. A good first paragraph can be just as powerful. This is where you make a promise to your reader, one that you will fulfill by the end of the book. This can be your main theme or conflict. Whatever you choose, you don’t have to force all that into a single sentence. Use whatever space you need and what serves your story.

Don’t start with weather

I don’t mind this one. Start with weather all you want. Be a rebel.

But it has to be important for your story. This is the place where you have to convince your reader you’re worth buying. If you spend those precious first hundred or so words on describing what kind of clouds passes by the window, you might lose them.

Start with action/Don’t start with action

I always see one or the other. Not helpful if you’re just starting out. What should you do? Start with action? Or take it slow?

This tip is all about pacing. A good story has tense moments and relaxed moments. A first chapter should have at least one tense moment, and you shouldn’t open with it. As a reader, it confuses me. Why should I care? Take a paragraph or two to introduce the character and the setting before you start shooting arrows.

Introduce your main character

The biggest open door of all, and one I disagree with. I would change it to “Introduce a main character”. Starting out with your villain doing bad stuff might be more interesting than meeting the hero. The reader will immediately start feeling something (disgust, hate, loathing, anger) and that will keep them turning the page.

Show your voice

It’s hard not to do this, although finding your true voice is insanely difficult. But once you have it, all you can do is show your voice. Don’t try to imitate another writer because readers are looking for authenticity. You can’t be more authentic than to be yourself. Find the style you’re comfortable with and don’t compare yourself to others. There’s no need.

Don’t explain too much

Exposition is what can kill your story, or at least the pace. Too much description can slow a story down to where the reader is bored and will put the book aside. But this is about the first chapter. Don’t reveal everything about your characters immediately. Leave a little mystery. These questions, teases, or seeds will keep the reader busy. They will pull your reader through the pages as they’re looking for an answer. Don’t forget to answer these questions before the last page.

What do you think makes or breaks a good first chapter? And what is your favourite tip for writing a gripping first chapter?

3 thoughts on “Struggling With The First Chapter

  1. Naithin says:

    Amusingly in the context of this post, the first chapter of my last NaNoWriMo effort is perhaps the only one I really like to any degree. This was many years ago, but I recently reinstalled Scrivener and took a look at it again as it’s still safely tucked away to my Dropbox account.

    I think I will ever be more in love with the IDEA of being a writer than the actual act of writing itself. I think. Clearly I enjoy it when I do it, but most of the time it’s all excuses and procrastinations.

    In any case! Great post, looking back over my own Ch 1 in the context of it, I will admit that I started with a small reference to the weather. Not as the opening line itself though, and it was in providing context to the main character’s state of mind at the outset.

    I think the main reason I like the opening chapter though is that it does in fact have a strong sense of voice to it. Sure, it’s a NaNo draft and all that implies from a technical standpoint, but the voice and tone is something that could have one day been developed into something recognisably ‘me’.

    I found (and honestly, continue to find) this to be the hardest thing to recover coming back to writing again now!

    • Tessa Hastjarjanto says:

      Now I’m curious about your NaNo project! My current WIP started as NaNo project as well, but my writing has improved so much that I’ve rewrite most of it and now I’m stuck. Do I chuck everything, or spend hours trying to fix what I have?

      If you ever want to talk about writing, the process, or want support, let me know 🙂

      • Naithin says:

        I was very much a discovery writer (aka Pantser), so when it came to revision what I found best for me when starting with a NaNo draft was just to write it again, but with the NaNo copy open as a reference.

        Sometimes I’d do a full chapter rewrite — or at least a scene rewrite — with a specific idea in mind to test, looking at a new approach or some new twist that I wanted to explore, wanted to see where it would take me. Other times it was just a rewrite purely as a tidy up.

        It would still require an actual editing pass, but I found that a loooot easier to deal with than trying to go into a NaNo draft cold.

        In terms of the project, happy to share it with you if you like. 🙂 It’s a fairly cliche high-fantasy story truth be told. Set in a world I’d started doodling out while still back in highschool. Still had the map I did for it back then even, hah.

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