Starting a novel, no matter how many you’ve written, can be challenging. The first chapter is where a writer hooks the reader and entices them to keep reading. The truth is, many readers won’t keep going if they aren’t feeling properly hooked at the end of the first chapter. But don’t worry, there are several component that go into writing the first chapter, and we’ll go over them today. Agents and editors and readers can be scary when you’re thinking of your first chapter, but agents and editors are looking for unique voices. Focus on letting your voice shine through. Hopefully, with a little technique help, you can let some anxiety go. Take deep breaths. You can do it.
The Before Writing Work:
Settle on a tense and point of view. If you haven’t decided on one, do that now. You don’t want to be jumping around from first to third and past to present in one chapter. There are a lot of options out there. Used to be, you picked first, third, or omniscient and wrote in past, but now, everything’s open to you. The point is to pick a method and stick with it. Do you want to always do Anne’s chapters in first person POV and then do your villain’s chapters in third person? Do it!
If you need to know, recent survey’s have shown that older readers prefer past tense and younger readers prefer present tense. Factor in your audience when choosing, but do what you feel is right for your story. Still not sure, try this. Go to your bookshelf and pick out your favorite books. What are they written in? What are you drawn to? Practice writing a scene in first, third, and omni and see what feels right.
Strong Opening Line:
The first the you need is a strong opening line. The opening line will set the stage for the chapter and introduce the reader the the action and characters they will be with throughout the story. There are five components you can use to hook the reader: conflict, question, emotions, humor, and shock.
Using those five components, you can break it own to seven different ways of conveying the information: via action, character, thought, dialogue, world building, setting, and statement.
Here are some examples.
- Setting and Emotion (the gray sky evokes certain feelings): “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” — William Gibson, Neuromancer
- Character and Question (why did he deserve it): “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” — C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
- Statement and Shock: “We started dying before the snow, and like the snow, we continued to fall.” — Louise Erdrich, Tracks
For more examples, visit this list.
The main struggle might be what opening is best? Do you start in the middle of the battle? Just before it happens? Do you start a week ago when both kings met to talk peace and decided they hated each other instead? Do you start just after when your hero is picking himself up off the bloody field and trying to find his lost friend?
All of these places are valid starting points, but what will serve your story best? Consider just picking one and writing. You might find your first chapter in that scene. If you don’t, you’ve written a scene you can use later and work backward from.
Introduce Your Main Character:
This seems like it should go without saying, but it’s better to say it anyway. Don’t hold back your main character. Having side characters talking about your main character can be a great technique for later in the book, but it is not generally a good way to introduce them in the first chapter.
Establish your character’s situation. What do they know? What does their world mean to them? Where are they in their development right now? Through the actions of this chapter, you will be introducing the theme of how your character will change as the story progresses.
Be Careful With Setting:
A common mistake many new authors make, according to agents and editors, is trying to give too much depth to the setting in the first paragraph. You’ve got the world all mapped out from the smells to the colors to the sounds, and you want your readers standing there with you. But sometimes you can overwhelm with too much information all at once. Sprinkle setting as the story goes, don’t pile it all on in one big glob right up front. For example, your readers need to know the story takes place in the winter under a bridge in a big city, but that can be shown with a single sentence rather than a whole paragraph or page of description. “Jonah crouched, back against the flaking concrete, and breathed warm air into his thinly-gloved hands as cars rattled the ancient bridge above him.”
Agents and editors are fond of saying to start stories in the middle. Chapter one operates best when there is some sort of action. Not necessarily a fight, just something that gets the main character moving forward in the plot. The chapter needs forward motion, and that is often done with something that requires your character to make decisive change or take action or find a clue or starts the reader asking questions.
Be bold. Present your story with a bang, not a whimper, to reverse an old saying. Don’t hold yourself back. You’re going to write a great book, and you need to begin with the confidence that you can write action or emotion whenever you please. Show us what you’ve got and own your voice.