This month, I’ve critiqued tons of ten-page samples, and most of them were the first pages of a novel. It’s reminded me how important the first chapter of your novel is. I know, I know—you’ve heard this a million times. But the first chapter represents the whole book. And if your first chapter isn’t fantastic, you may not get the chance to prove to a reader that the rest of the book is.
So, what does make an amazing first chapter?
The first sentence is oh-so-important, but here I’m going to focus on the whole chapter because that first chapter is like a miniature model of the whole book. It tells readers what to expect from the rest of the book and gets them interested enough to find out for themselves.
When I read those ever-important first ten pages, here’s what I look for.
Voice, mood, and tone
Writing that doesn’t show personality isn’t going to get far, even with the most compelling characters and plot ever. Make sure your voice is coming through your writing, and that you’re setting the mood and tone for the rest of the book. Is your narrator funny, sarcastic, or serious? Is this a light-hearted romp or a gritty emotional drama?
Your first chapter needs to be about the event that kicks off the rest of the story and gives your protag purpose. So start conflict. Upset your protagonist. That’s what spurs action and change. But make sure the events of the first chapter are relevant to the rest of the plot. I’m always impressed when something seems random in the beginning but ties into the story in ways I never imagined. And finally, keep the action balanced. There’s a happy medium between too much action and not enough, and you want your first chapter to fall into that sweet spot.
Make readers care about the main character and her story. Show, Don’t Tell is essential in the first chapter. Focus on creating a felt sense of the character’s situation through body language, actions, emotions and thoughts, and strong dialogue. Don’t overwhelm your readers with huge groups of characters or lengthy descriptions. Just focus on laying down the breadcrumbs that will lead them to the answers that will come later.
Don’t be afraid to throw your reader off balance a little—getting your readers asking questions actually helps them feel engaged with the story. Starting with dialogue or in the middle of a scene gets readers thinking about what in the world is going on, how the characters got to this place, and what’s going to happen next. Stay focused on what’s happening in that moment, though, and keep any foreshadowing or hindsight subtle.
I put this last on the list, even though it’s really the main function of a first chapter, because writers have a tendency to get carried away with the orientation. Yes, nothing is worse than
starting a new book and feeling confused, but don’t overdo it. In the first pages of a novel, just help your readers get their bearings. Introduce your protagonist and a few other important characters. Give only enough description that the reader can tell when and where the story takes place, who is there, what is happening, and why it’s important.
Where to start and who to start with
It can be tricky to figure out exactly the right event to start with and who exactly should be included in those first pages. Here’s how I tell my clients to start thinking about it.
Where in the story’s timeline does the main plot actually start?
Now take one step back. Start there. That gives readers a chance to get oriented and care about what’s happening before all hell breaks loose. But it’s not so far back that they can get bored waiting for something to happen.
Who is involved in the main plot?
Whenever possible, bring in—or at least mention—one or two major characters besides the protagonist who will be important to the story later. Just keep it to a few characters, so it doesn’t get too cluttered and confusing.
Some things are off limits for the first chapter and for good reason. These bore readers if they’re addressed to quickly in a story.
- Too much exposition or description
- Personal introductions, as in, “Hi, my name is Jeni, and I’m an editor. One day something crazy happened to me.”
- Clichés. Examples:
- Dreams/false starts
- First days
A Word About Prologues
The most common advice for prologues is to avoid them. But like all writing advice, it can’t be applied across the board. Sometimes you just need a prologue. To make sure you actually need the prologue, ask yourself (and your critique partner, beta readers, and editor) two questions:
- Could this prologue be the first chapter?
- Could the information from the prologue be split up and sprinkled throughout the story in bite-size pieces?
If the answer to both questions is no, you may actually need the prologue. Just don’t let it take away from your first chapter, and make sure the prologue has enough of a hook that your readers feel invested.
Remember, this isn’t written in stone
Of course there are books that break all these rules, and some of them are bestsellers and great books written by wonderful authors. You don’t have to follow any of them yourself. But if you’re feeling stuck or wondering where to begin, it’s a great framework to get you started.
What do you look for in a first chapter? Leave a comment below or tweet me @jenichappelle.