We've all heard the saying: "first impressions matter."
As much as we hate to hear it, it's true. Especially in the world of literature. Your opening paragraph and scenes all set the tone for your story and ultimately, whether or not someone will continue reading. The first chapter serves as a gateway to the rest of your story.
Scary right? Sometimes, especially for new writers, this can be a daunting task. However, that doesn't mean it's impossible. As long as you know the foundation of what makes a good first chapter, it becomes easier over time.
In this blog post, we will be exploring key elements and strategies for crafting a first chapter that will leave your readers craving more.
First and foremost, you need to actually introduce your story otherwise no one is going to know what it's about. This is your time to make a name for yourself. To show off your world and the story you’re trying to portray. It’s do or die.
So the question is, how do you introduce your story effectively? How can you make it engaging for your readers? How do you show off an entire world in the span of a couple of pages?
Hook, Line, Sinker: you need a hook. Period. That’s just a given when you decide to write a book. You’ve probably heard about the infamous debate about making your first line stand out and heard horror stories about people who did it wrong. Maybe all of this information is making you terrified to even pick up the pen or crank out your first set of words on the computer. But don’t be. Your hook is what grabs the attention of your reader. You can do this with a specific line or scene, but it should be something that encompasses the tone of your story and forces someone to read more because they just have to know what happens next. Below will be an example of a good hook and a bad hook:
- Good Hook: “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenburgs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” – The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
- Bad Hook: “I scowl with frustration at myself in the mirror.” – Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James
What do you notice? Ask yourself what you think they did right, wrong, or differently from someone else you might’ve read.
And if you still feel like you have no idea where to start, consider opening your book up with a thought provoking statement, moment of action, a moral question, something funny, etc.
- Settings are key: the whole point of reading is too escape! So your job as a writer is to make people feel like they’re in a whole different world and actually believe that they’re there. Help them visualize. What time period is this in? What city? Is this story set in a small town or in New York? A setting can make a huge difference to your novel, especially if there’s symbolism behind that.
What does the place smell like? Look like? What’s the ambiance? You don’t want to overwhelm them with too many details because you still have a whole book to talk about every blade of grass. Joking. Joking. Don’t spend a whole page describing grass.
But in all seriousness, give your readers enough to understand, but not too much to where they can’t keep up.
- Main character era: your main character has to be in their main character era. Otherwise, why are you even writing a story from their point of view?
What exactly is a main character? Your main character (a.k.a. protagonist) is the person with the most amount of influence over the plot and other characters. Or in other words, it’s the person we’re going to follow from start to finish. They’re the perspective that we’re seeing the story unfold from.
But why is it important to show off your main character in the first chapter?
Because in order to actually, you know, read the book we have to like the character we’re reading about. We have to care about that person. We have to identify with them. We have to see a little sliver of ourselves in them.
This is your time to make your main character shine. Give your readers a glimpse into their personality. Are they sarcastic? A ball of sunshine? Comedic? Stoic? Are they creative or do they like things that are more logical, like technology or math?
But, that’s not all. You have to show the reader what desires your main character has. What are they fighting for? What exactly about their desires is causing a conflict internally or externally? How does this affect their life and how they live it? How does it affect their relationships?
You would be surprised at how much of a connection you can build when you experience that type of vulnerability; especially with a character we’re meeting for the first time.
It’s so important to make your character interesting. It’s important to make them well-developed. But the most important part is making them relatable. Relatable characters is what sells your story. Relatable characters are what inspire people to stay.
- Stakes, stakes, and more stakes: I can’t even begin to express the important of stakes or conflict in fiction. I took a Screenwriting class during my senior year of undergrad and one of the things that I often heard about was stakes. More often than not, a lot of screenplays don’t have enough stakes in their story, which is what leads to it falling flat, especially during the second act when you have the most downtime. That same concept applies to novel-writing.
Stakes (a.k.a. conflict) is the driving force behind your story. It’s the thing that makes the reader care. It’s what makes your character grow. When you’re deciding on the stakes/conflict you want in your story, you have to ask yourself:
- What’s at risk?
- What will happen?
- What will be lost?
Showing that off early not only gives the reader an idea on what your main character will face throughout the story, but it also gives them another reason to care. And it gives you, fellow writer, the chance to create tension and keep people invested.
You can create conflict from external factors (ex. natural disasters, divorce, unemployment, etc.) or internal factors (ex. mental health, moral dilemma, etc.) or if you really want to get fancy, use both. I actually suggest having a mixture of external and internal conflicts because they can both feed off each other.
- Use your senses: use your five senses people! This is the time to evoke a vivid image in someone’s mind. What should they be seeing? Tasting? Hearing? Smelling? Touching? These are the things that will enhance the experience of your story and make it feel realistic.
- The voice: you have to ask yourself what type of tone you want to set. Is your story a mystery-thriller? Steamy romance? Science fiction? Depending on the genre and the theme, your tone is going to be different. Which means the narrative voice also has to match. Once you set the tone, there’s no going back.
- Exposition dumps are a no-no: this is subjective, but personally, exposition dumps in the first chapter are a no-no. It’s important to provide information yes, but don’t overwhelm people with your characters entire life story. Readers already have a lot to remember, so bombarding them with that much information can be an issue.
Let important character information gradually come out as the story progresses.
- To compel or not to compel: it has to be compelling! Leave your readers wanting more; make them hang on the edge of their seat. People want to feel excited after they finish the first chapter of your book, especially if it leaves off with an interesting question or a cliffhanger.
SHOW DON’T TELL
I’m sure we’re all sick of hearing this. However, it’s an important thing that all writers should know because it’s the very thing that makes your story yours.
“Show don’t tell” is a principle in storytelling that encourages the usage of descriptive details to describe emotion, actions, events, etc. instead of stating it directly.
What does that look like? Here’s an example:
- Not using “show don’t tell”: "He was sad.”
- Using “show don’t tell”: “He sank down to the floor, mouth open in a silent cry. Fat tears dripped down his darkened cheeks. Understanding flashed in his eyes. The dam broke and his scream pierced the air for hours to come.”
You see the difference? Ask yourself which one invokes more emotion. Which one makes you feel like you’re there, in the moment, with this character? Engaging the senses, using action, descriptive language and body language are all tools to effectively create “show don’t tell” in your story.
You can also use dialogue to your advantage if you want to cut down on description. This is also your chance to show character conflicts through their speech. Dialogue is the perfect way to advance your story and fill that quota.
However, sometimes telling is okay too. Just use it sparingly!
REMEMBER YOUR PACE
Think about watching paint dry. That’s slow right?
Now think about watching a fighter jet through the sky. Way too fast right? So fast that you can’t keep up.
Now imagine having a story that too slow or too fast. You would either be mad that you wasted your time or confused that it finished so quickly. That’s the type of thing you don’t want to do to your readers.
Pacing is hard. And it’s even worse to figure out what happy medium works best for what you’re writing because pacing is always going to change depending on the type of story you’re telling. If you’re writing a slow-burn romance, you don’t want the pacing to speed by. Or if you’re writing an action-thriller, you don’t want to have too much downtime in between scenes.
So how exactly do you find that happy medium?
- Rhythm, baby: you have to understand the rhythm of your story. What does that mean? Look at the overall tone, genre, and structure of your story (which I was mentioning earlier) and find your rhythm based off that. This is what’s going to tell you how to pace your story and what to look out for as you write and outline your book.
- Balance action and dialogue: use action and dialogue to your advantage. This is what helps give your story a unique spin and it can help propel the story forward in ways you wouldn’t expect. You can use those moments to speed up something or leave room for the characters to engage in introspection. This is going to be different depending on what’s going on in your story, but those are tips to keep in mind.
- Duh, duh, duh: suspense! You don’t have to hit us with gore and guts like most horror movies do to invoke suspense, but you should still create it when you start raising the stakes. You can have a plot twist, time pressure, or anything else that will make a reader be on the edge of their seat until the end.
- Vary the length: nobody wants to read an entire book that only uses short sentences. And nobody has the mental capacity to sit through a long-winded paragraph that goes on for two pages. Vary the paragraph length! Not only does it keep the reader engaged, but it helps control the pace of your story because you can decide how fast or slow a scene is going to move just based off that alone.
- Kill your darlings: sometimes you have to get rid of something you love in order to find something better. Every writer faces this at some point. It’s a right of passage. If you feel like you’re story has unnecessary scenes or details that are dragging your story’s pacing through the mud, it’s time to get rid of it.
- Endings can be your friend: Like I said earlier, cliffhangers are a great way to spice up tension in your story, it keeps the readers engaged and it can help move the story along since you’re not spending so much time trying to tie up loose ends. You’ll just do that in the next chapter!
EDIT, EDIT, EDIT
Ah yes, my favorite part. The editing stage.
After you finish your first draft and you feel like you’ve climbed Mount Everest, it’s time to celebrate. And edit.
Your first round of edits are specifically for the huge things like plot holes, character development, pacing and most importantly, making your first chapter perfect. This is where you can deconstruct it and figure out what’s working and what isn’t.
If you feel like you need another set of eyes, phone a friend. Let them look through it so you can get a perspective on what they like, dislike, and what can be improved upon to make the chapter better.
Or maybe you would rather seek professional services once you get to the point of sharing your manuscript. That’s where we come in. Make sure to look at our services and price ranges. We offer affordable pricing for editing, beta reading, consultation calls and more. We read any genre and edit almost any type of work (i.e. novels, screenplays, poetry books, etc.)
But enough of the self-promotion. Now that you’ve gotten to the end, do you feel confident about tackling your first chapter? If so, let us know in the comments below.