How to write a great first chapter?

Posted on Posted in Writing advice

Buying a book is a decision. Most readers go through various processes to assess if they should/ want to read your book. Imagine this- A reader is looming over a bookshelf and likes the cover of your book. Then he reaches out and gently pick it up. He reads your blurb, eyebrows are raised, a smile spreads. He hurries and flip open the book and take the smell in. Then, dives in to read the first chapter of his would-be possession. Isn’t this all wonderful? But wait! Why did his shoulders suddenly slump? Why is he putting the book down? No! Don’t leave!

Well, what a bummer. That’s a horrible thing to happen to any book. Writing an amazing first chapter is a powerful way to avoid this fate. Below are some tips to take into consideration while writing the opening of your novel.

Avoid Clichés

A cliché is a trend that is overused. It lacks originality. So while you are writing your opening you want to make sure it isn’t like millions of other books out there. No reader wants to read the same thing over and over again. Even if your book has the potential to be the next Harry Potter, if it has a cliched opening then no reader is going to pick it up. You need to write an opening that is unique. Something that can only happen in the world that you are creating. So avoid openings that-

  1. Have the character waking up (sigh…)
  2. Have a dream sequence. (Ptff…)
  3. Have the character look in the mirror and describing themselves.
  4. Long elaborate narrative about the scenery- setting sun, birds chirping, dogs barking…

You need your opening to create a world for the reader to dive in, not a world that they have already been to a million times. The first line is very important. It is what introduces the reader into your book and is very hard to nail. But, getting off the mark with a lip-smacking opening line isn’t impossible, it requires multiple tries. You can do it, I have faith in you.

The opening pages should also clearly establish whose story it is. It can either be the protagonist or the antagonist. But, a clear message needs to be sent on who the plot revolves around. Apart from that, it is also paramount to set the tone of the novel. Make sure the reader knows that it is a romantic comedy by keeping things light or you can drag them into the shadows with a grim tone of your crime thriller.

Also, it helps if you make it clear what the underlying theme of the book is about in your opening chapter. It will help readers identify with the plot.

Write an opening unique to your setting

The Hook- Setting up expectations.

The hook is the most important aspect of a great story beginning. But what makes the reader latch on to the story? There are many possibilities, some tried and tested methods are-

  1. Raise a question that the readers want to be answered. Crime dramas like The Mentalist, CSI, Crime Patrol and Sherlock Holmes are perfect examples of such a method. Here the episode starts with a murder. The mystery involved makes the reader want to know how things would unfold. The investigation process is sometimes far more interesting than the identity of the killer.
  2. Promise something grand. Let us take an example from the book ‘Throne of Glass’, by Sarah J. Mass. In the first chapter, the protagonist Celaena Sardothien is given a choice- continue to stay in the salt mines or fight in a deadly tournament and earn her freedom. We are given the details that Celeana is an assassin. But not just any lowly killer. She is the best on the continent. This promises us that we are going to see something like a tournament arc where she would fight mighty challengers.
  3. Throw them right in the middle of an action. Hollywood has done car chases to death. And for good reason. It builds up excitement. Even though I would say that readers are not attached to the protagonist just yet, so the impact of a cool chase scene is somewhat lost. But, it also gives the opportunity to showcase qualities or traits of the protagonist right off the bat while also creating a momentum going forward.
  4. Throw your protagonist in a dilemma. Add uncertainty. To be or not to be, that is the question. And possibly the hook.

Details- How much is too much?

A hook is only as good as the intrigue it creates. There is a need to balance out the details you reveal versus the inexplicable phenomena you create. You might want to give the readers the exact context of the situation- What’s at stake, who are the people involved and how it came to be. But, hold your horses. Let the reader go on a journey along with your protagonist. Let them explore the world that you are creating. If your opening chapter has a murder in it, the readers don’t need to know who all were present in the house at that time. Your detective protagonist can slowly unravel the clues and interrogate the witnesses. One problem that I have seen prevalent in the first chapters of aspiring authors (including myself when I just started writing), is the need to depict the world in as much detail as possible, to give a context of all the characters in the story at once like including the neighborhood they live in, their passions and problems or even how many women the hero dated (Yeah, that has happened). Here is the thing, one such detail is fine or probably needed,  but all of them together makes the opening mushy. Do not info-dump, you will lose the reader there and then. I do understand the need to enlighten the readers of the weight of the situation by wanting to describe the relations of the characters present but that may take away from the pacing. Also, introducing too many characters has a negative effect because the reader will be confused. Readers want to latch on to one character and understand the world that they inhabit. This is especially important if you have multiple perspectives. Try to limit the POV to a single character in the beginning and then expand it from there.

Also, the opening chapter is not the place to show character development. Period.

While the aforementioned details should be restricted, the aspects that need to shine through are-

  1. The protagonist (or antagonist)- the most important person of the book needs to make an entry at the start. If the readers take anything out of the first chapter, it should be who the protagonist is and what is happening to him/her. You need readers to like your protagonist.
  2. Voice- What kind of voice is being used to show the world. What is the perspective of the narrator? Is it optimistic or is it sarcastic? The readers need to know that. A lot of times people read books, not because of the plot but because they find the voice intriguing.
  3. Setting- Again, the description of the place shouldn’t be pages long, but it helps to know where the events are taking place. Is your story set in London or Mumbai? Maybe tell the readers. If your genre is sci-fi or fantasy, just describe it briefly- what kind of geography is it? Does the setting have a beach or is it a desert? Is it in space near a black hole or a red dwarf? You can go on describing it in detail later on but establishing a mental picture of the setting makes imagination easier.

Inciting incident- Are you starting your book at the right place?

The inciting incident is the event that launches the story problem. It is the coincidence that changes the life of the characters in the story. This change is the hook that fascinates the readers and sets the protagonist on a journey.

Everything before the inciting incidence is backstory and everything after it is the story. All the events before, have an equilibrium to them, but your first inciting incident changes the status quo for the protagonist. It throws the hero off guard and sets a problem (or a set of problems) that need to be solved in order to reach the previous peaceful state.  And at this upheaval should you begin the story. Here is the tricky part- a good opening (in most cases) shows the status quo as well as the event that changes it. This sudden shift is what makes everything interesting. A murder in a mystery novel is the inciting incident. A breakup can be the inciting incident in a romance novel that would lead to the characters finding the one.

One thing I would like to point out is that your opening chapter need not be the first chapter you write. Because unless your outline is clear and unalterable, which mine never is, your opening will change. This is because going further your book might take unexpected turns and then the opening wouldn’t make sense, so you would either have to re-write it or change it. Maybe you improve as a writer or some other idea comes to your mind? Whatever the reason, you might end up discarding the initial idea entirely. So, till you are absolutely certain, try to write the opening later on once every other aspect like the tone, voice and the character perspectives are clear in your mind.

So, there you have it. These were my tips on crafting a great first chapter that the readers would hook to. I hope it helped you in some capacity. Now go get them!

Check out my novel ‘The Eternal’s Gambit‘ now!

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