“Chapter 1.” Two magical words that give no indication to the hours upon hours authors spend perfecting those first few pages. Without a captivating opening chapter, writers don’t make it past agents, editors, or readers. Here’s how you can nail writing the beginning of your story.
Make the first line count. I love tense, understated first lines. I love manic, rambling lines full of wildflower prose and turns of phrase I’ve never read before. I love any first line that will make me read it again and think, “Whoa. That’s cool.”
Take a look at some of your favorite books. What series of words did the authors choose to set the scene for their stories? How did they capture your attention from the get-go? Conversely, which books have first sentences that seem drab or unremarkable? Practice writing your opener half a dozen times in different ways, then ask a reader friend to take a look and see which line makes them want to read the book the most. And if you want more inspiration, check out 100 of the most famous first lines in literature.
Start with a bang. Once upon a time, writers could get away with a whole first chapter of exposition. There was time for introductions, musings, snippets of dialogue, and plenty of description. But today’s readers expect your book to start the race with a sprint and keep it up the whole way through. I like to credit the rise in action-packed first chapters to Suzanne Collins. By the end of her first chapter (spoiler alert!) Katniss’s sister has been chosen as tribute from District 12, and you just know it’s going to be a non-stop crazy ride from there.
Not every book needs to begin with a death or a capture or a character on the run. But the first chapter needs to have some stakes attached to it. Readers should feel compelled to keep reading, either because you’ve left them with a cliffhanger or because the setting or the protagonist are so fascinating that they just can’t help but turn the page.
Give the people what they want. There’s nothing wrong with a good mystery (you know, especially if you’re writing a mystery). There’s nothing wrong with laying out a breadcrumb trail in chapter one. There’s nothing wrong with withholding information from your readers…until there is.
Some authors have a tendency to create so much suspense, to leave so many questions unanswered, that the reader just gets confused. Don’t fall into the trap of being intentionally vague or misleading at the expense of your readers connecting to the story. Give them enough pertinent information to allow them to create theories and suspicions of their own. Guessing at the main character’s secret or wondering if so-and-so could really be the villain is far more fun than having to reread passages because things just aren’t making sense.
Paint the world…slowly. One of my greatest pet peeves as an editor and as a reader is starting a book where the first chapter is filled with made up words and places, so many that I can’t keep them straight. I love fantasy more than any other genre, but nothing makes me put a book down faster than when I can’t pronounce any of the character’s names and I get introduced to a whole village, a new system of magic, and four elaborate empires in a matter of pages.
Start off with something your readers will understand. Write a scene that has easy entry points for people who are unfamiliar with your world, and try to avoid going overboard with unfamiliar words. If you’re writing something contemporary, life is a bit easier, but it is still important to provide a sense of time and place without being didactic or overly descriptive. Provide details at a metered pace so your readers can gather the material they need while letting their imagination do the rest.
Polish to perfection. Once you’ve worked out all the kinks and created a fascinating first chapter, make sure it is free of errors. If you’re submitting to agents or editors, a first chapter might be all they have time to review before saying yes or no. They may not fall one hundred percent in love with your story, but don’t let typos be the reason it’s not a match made in book heaven.
Some of my favorite first chapters of all time:
- Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
- Pride and Prejudice
- The Hunger Games
- Peace Like a River
- We Were Liars
- My Lady Jane
- Anne of Green Gables
- The Hobbit
- Artemis Fowl
- Alanna (The First Adventure)