Writing the First Chapter
It’s really easy to put down a book after reading a few pages, but it becomes increasingly more difficult to do so as you go on. Once you’ve invested a lot of time into anything (including a book), you’re going to be less inclined to give up. That’s why it is so important that the first chapter of your book keeps readers engaged and excited. You need to start with something that tells them this book will be worth reading.
Ways to Hook Your Readers
High stakes. The true definition of this varies depending on your genre, but raising the stakes from the start forces your readers to keep reading. The Fault in Our Stars, for instance, immediately reveals that the narrator has cancer. It’s clear from the start what the narrator is facing, so you want to keep reading.
Surprises! Show your reader that they must keep reading your story to see how it unfolds. Use literary techniques (on a small scale) such as an early plot twist or a red herring (false foreshadowing) to surprise your reader early in the story. This reveals that your reader will not be able to predict the end of your story and must continue reading it.
Curiosity. An interesting character. A weird world. A conflict with a lingering question. Curiosity is a powerful emotion, and anything that can strike this into the heart of your reader is bound to keep them engaged.
Basically, you want your reader to be involved in the novel. This doesn’t mean writing in second person, though you could do that. This means keeping them on their toes. Make sure your hook has your readers wondering what’s going to happen next. Your readers should constantly be making (incorrect) predictions about the rest of the novel.
This means you should be raising questions. Lots of questions. Now, this doesn’t mean you should immerse your reader in an unknown world with an unfamiliar language and unpredictable characters, creating confusion. Instead, you should find a balance between giving information and demanding questions. For instance, if your reader knows what your character is doing, make their reasoning unclear. To do this, you could start your story with an argument or a battle, explaining how each character reacts to the other’s moves. On the other hand, your character might narrate their thought process but not explain how they will enforce it. Perhaps they talk about getting revenge for their friend’s utter betrayal, forcing your reader to keep reading in order to learn how the revenge is executed.
Things to Keep in Mind
Be honest. Make sure your reader knows what type of story they are reading by the end of the first chapter. This means keeping your tone, voice, and writing style somewhat consistent between your first chapter and the rest of your book (unless you have a good reason to do otherwise). This ensures that if your reader keeps reading, they will actually finish the story. After all, if the story suddenly changes in writing style after an exciting hook, your reader may no longer feel the need to keep reading. On the same note, by the end of the first chapter, your readers should know—or think they know—exactly where your book is going. You should have given them enough information to somewhat understand the story thus far.
Don’t spend all your time working on the first chapter. It can be really tempting to keep returning to and revising your first chapter as you make progress on the rest of your novel, but this can destroy the creative process. Instead of focusing on writing and creating new content, you keep giving in to the temptation to edit what you already have. Unless you have a wonderful idea for the beginning of your novel that you just need to get down on paper, resist the urge to keep going back to that first chapter while you are writing the first draft.
It doesn’t have to be the first thing you write. Some writers find it easy and natural to write chronologically. This way, you set the foundation for your novel and let your characters lead the way to the end. Others, myself included, have certain big ideas scattered throughout a novel that they want to weave together. It’s okay and perfectly normal to not know how your story begins when you start writing. Sometimes, you will come back to your beginning when revising and realize your book starts three chapters before the actual story. Don’t worry! You can cut it out then. The important thing is that you have a strong, exciting beginning by the time you call your manuscript done.
Finding the right beginning for your story is hard, and actually writing it can be even harder. It takes time and experimentation, but in the end, it will be worth it.
I really liked the beginning of The Lightning Thief. What is your favorite first chapter from a novel? Let me know in the comments!