Writing Chapter One – Tips

Greetings, Storytellers! Diana here today. I hope you’re all writing up a storm.

I’ve wanted to write about first chapters for a while, primarily because they’re so important. After all, they’re the gateway to Chapter 2, and getting a reader to Chapter 2 is a fantastic idea.

Before I get into the elements of a powerful first chapter, let’s touch briefly on different ways to open a book.

There are actually a number of perfectly legitimate types of first chapters. Writer’s Digest has a great article by Jeff Gerke that describes 4 approaches with examples (summarized here):

The Prolog – A prolog is an episode that pertains to your story but is in some way outside your main narrative. It may look back at a time long ago, or give a glimpse of the future. It may arise from an alternate pov to the main story, or provide a glimpse of important information to set up the tale’s start. Harmony has a great series on prologs that’s worth a read, starting Here.

The Hero-Action Beginning – In a hero-action beginning, the hero is onstage, doing something active and interesting related to the story’s core or theme. It need not involve explosions and car chases, but it certainly can. This is the most common way to open a story.

The In Medias Res Beginning (in the middle of things ) – With in medias res, you start at a point deep in the story, show a bit of activity to intrigue the reader, and then you hit the rewind button and spend some, or all, of the rest of the book catching up to that moment.

The Frame Device – The final common way of beginning your first chapter is to use a frame device. In this, your story is bookended on the front and back (and usually a few instances in the middle) by a story that is outside the main story. The primary tale is framed by this other story.

With that out of the way, I went in search of tips that apply to Chapter Ones regardless of the genre, tips that I could use as I conceive of, write, and edit my stories. As usual, there are exceptions to these tips, and the list is not exhaustive.

Context: Backstory, Setting, and Detail

  • Avoid backstory. Include the bare minimum necessary and trickle the rest in as needed.
  • Don’t overdo setting. Give a smattering of strong, vibrant details to establish a sense of place and time. Then fill in the rest later as the story unfolds.
  • Connect the character to the setting so it isn’t just a backdrop. You might show how the character interacts with the setting.
  • There’s no need to skimp on details that serve the story. If your story is about snipers, give sniper details. Make sure they’re sharp and interesting. Avoid being vague. Write tight!

Structure: Theme, Mood, and Plot

  • Start the book as late in the story as you can. Does your story still work if you start with Chapter 2? If so, cut chapter 1.
  • Write a great first line. A great first line grabs the reader’s interest.
  • The theme is the argument that the story is making. The first chapter should hint at the theme.
  • Establish your mood. Ask yourself how you want the reader to feel while reading the book.
  • Think of every chapter as a short story with a mini-plot and conflict, especially Chapter 1.
  • Avoid telegraphing. Let the immediacy of the action carry the chapter to the end. Keep your pov tight.

Character

  • Most writing experts will recommend introducing your protagonist in the first chapter. Some recommend introducing your antagonist as well, though that isn’t always possible. Avoid opening with other characters talking about the main character.
  • Make your reader care about your character. How is your character at risk?
  • Have your character engaged – active versus passive.
  • Not absolutely necessary, but dialog is a great way to reveal character and conflict, and manage pace.

Conflict

  • Have some sort of conflict – physical, emotional, or mental. Conflict disrupts the status quo. Conflict is drama, and it’s interesting.
  • You don’t need to spell out the stakes for the entire book in chapter one, but hint at why the conflict matters.
  • A note on action: Rip-roaring action might be fun, but it’s best if the reader cares about the character first. Without an investment in character and context, an action scene can feel shallow.

Hooks

  • End your first chapter (most chapters) with a moment of mystery, an introduction of conflict, or a twist of the tale. It doesn’t have to be a huge one; it just needs to be intriguing enough to propel the reader forward.
  • Mystery. While action needs context, one of mystery’s strengths is that it makes the reader wait for context. It’s okay not to explain everything. At the same time, mystery does not equal confusion – find the balance.

That does it for today. Now off with you to craft that amazing first chapter.

Happy Writing!

101 thoughts on “Writing Chapter One – Tips

  1. Great advice, Diana, though some publishers/editors will argue that prologues shouldn’t be added to a book because readers skip them- I disagree. As a reader, I always read the prologue!.
    I’ve also seen authors who start the book with a scene from the middle of the book too, or open the book with the pov of the antagonist and his/her mission.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t think there’s necessarily a wrong way, Jina, as long as the reasoning is sound and the opening snags a reader. And hugely popular authors can take more risks than most of us. In general, guidelines are there for a reason, I think, and I find them helpful. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Thanks for dropping by, and Happy Writing!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Writing Chapter One – Tips – Phucnotes

    • Thanks for dropping by, Michael. I never memorize all this stuff. There’s just too much to this craft to keep it all in my brain. I just refer to the list with each book and check the boxes. I’m glad you found it useful! Have a wonderful weekend and Happy Writing. ❤

      Like

  3. As a reader, I found myself nodding at most of these. The first chapter is so very important to incite a reader to continue. Do you know, I had to start Harry Potter three times before I felt, okay… I’ll move on? (And it was mostly at my sister’s urging!).
    There is nothing worse than having so many details thrown at you in the first chapter that you are so confused, you have to decide whether you want to be enlightened or not. Give a little, then give a little more later. 🙂 Excellent post, Diana,.

    Liked by 1 person

    • They’re important chapters, Dale, and getting them right seems to be a balancing act. They need just the right amount of “this” and “that” or the reader waffles. Your experience with Harry Potter is interesting. I haven’t read it, but I’ve had the same experience with other highly-successful books. Thanks for the visit and comment and Happy Reading!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Oh for sure.
        And yeah, I really had to force myself to continue. Then never stopped 🙂 I wonder if I were to reread the first chapter now if I would have the same reaction. I shall give it a go later 😉
        Pleasure is mine and thanks for the info!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Stellar tips, Diana. First chapters are the introduction to a world that an author has created. If it falls flat, there’s less of a chance that reader will continue in this world. Your advice makes much sense. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. More great advice, Diana. I want you to know I’m busy trying to implement many of your excellent suggestions. I’m like a guy with a machete chopping away. 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ha ha ha. I know how hard that is, Pete, having faced that myself. Even this morning, I was chopping away lines I’d labored over. So kudos to you! I’m glad you enjoyed the post and tips. I still refer to these as I revisit my first chapters (over and over again). Happy Writing!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank you, Diana. This is very helpful. I applied your criteria to the first chapter of my novel-in-progress, and I think it passes muster. However, this chapter could end up on the cutting room floor before all is said and done!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think that’s true for everyone, Judi. These tips are really for the revision/editing process. I’m just like you, revisiting it over and over again until it feels right. Thanks for the visit and comment and have a great week of writing. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Ooooh so helpful, Diana! I’ve been going over CHs 1 and 2 of my WIP the last two days, and while I think I like the beginning pretty well, after reading this, I want to take another look and see if I can improve on it. Thanks so much for sharing these suggestions. I’m sure they’ll prove useful to me again and again! Great post! 😀 ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think we do lots of them naturally, Jacqui, especially once we gain experience, but I like referring to the list to make sure I’ve hit them in some way or another. Often a single sentence or phrase will get a point done. I’m glad you enjoyed the tips. Happy Writing!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Excellent tips, Diana! I rewrite my first chapter after I finish the first draft. That way, I don’t have to spend a lot of time on it when I first start the manuscript. So much easier than staring at a blank page.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I remember writing my first novel… I wrote more than forty first chapters before I figured out how to begin. Then I revised the “winner” another forty or more times. I’ve improved a lot since then, but my first chapters still go through a ton of revisions. You’re right; it’s so important to get them right. And your checklist was spot on. Thanks, Diana.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I do the same, Staci, though it took me a few novels to figure it out. I spend an inordinate amount of time on first chapters. They’re so important to hooking our readers. I’m glad you enjoyed the tips and appreciate the thumbs up. Happy Writing!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. All great tips, Diana. Like may of the authors, I find myself writing chapter one over several times. It’s the most important. If you have a weak chapter one, there is a high chance the reader will put the book down and walk away.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s the danger, Michele. The rest of the book can be fantastic, but that doesn’t do us any good if we can’t get the reader to Chapter Two. I’m glad to hear that you put a lot of revision energy into the start. Thanks for the comment and have a wonderful day of writing. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  11. What a fabulous post on first chapters. You have given some great ideas, tips, and guidelines, Diana. I will pin this and refer back to it each time I start a new first chapter. 🙂 As I was reading, I compared my current WIP to these lists, and happily, it came up on the plus side. Whew! Thank you so much for sharing this valuable information!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the tips, Jan. I refer to this list a lot when I’m editing my first chapter (repeatedly). I’m not surprised that you could check the boxes. A lot of this comes naturally, especially for seasoned writers, but to me the reference is useful to make sure I haven’t missed anything. Thanks for the comment, and Happy Writing.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Great post, Diana. I know I’ll be returning over the months ahead, especially when I’m ready to edit. I think most readers decide whether to read a book or not within the first chapter or two. The storyline either grabs them or it doesn’t. Thank you for showing us how to capture their attention. 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m so glad you enjoyed this, Gwen. I refer to it a lot as I edit and re-edit. Sometimes I think readers give us a lot less than a chapter, even down to a page or paragraph. Getting a book off to a strong start is essential. Happy Writing!

      Liked by 1 person

    • That’s basically how I do it, Craig. I don’t fret over the initial draft – just get it down. It’s not until the 2nd or 3rd draft that the list comes out and I start taking a critical look at the construction. Glad you enjoyed the post. Have a great day of writing. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Pingback: Writing Chapter One – Tips | Jeanne Owens, author

  14. Great tips, Diana. That first chapter is important, and oh, that magical opening line. My first chapters get a lot of rewrites. With one of my books, I completely scrapped what I’d written and went in another direction. I was glad I did, and my critique partners agreed the second scenario was much better.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s daring of you, Joan, but I’m glad you had the insight to make the change, and that it worked! I also rework my first chapter over and over again. And search for that awesome first line. 🙂 Writing is an art, but it’s also a craft and a discerning eye is invaluable. Happy Writing!

      Liked by 1 person

  15. A great list of do’s and don’ts, Diana. Like most authors, I spend. a lot of time on my first chapter (especially the first paragraph). It usually gets a ton of rewrites before I’m happy with it. I also remember one book in which my editor lobbed off my first two scenes and picked up the story at a later point for my beginning. That was a learning experience!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Wow, Mae. A great learning experience. Eek. I also rewrite and massage my first chapter over and over again – more than any other in the book. And that first line/first paragraph… sometimes that’s all a reader will give us before making a decision to continue on or close the book. Thanks for stopping by and Happy Writing!

      Like

    • Your prologue series is excellent, Harmony. I’m happy to refer writers there. 🙂 And I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I refer back to these tips a lot as I rewrite/edit my first chapter (over and over again). It’s so important to hooking our readers! Thanks for dropping by and Happy Writing!

      Liked by 1 person

  16. Excellent tips, Diana. Because the term “chapter” can vary in length and content based on the writer’s preferences, are there specific scenes you recommend for the story’s beginning? Thank you for the inspiration!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks for dropping by, Grant. Great question and one that I can’t answer. Each story is so different and has different requirements. That’s part of fun! I think the tip about starting as late in the story as possible is a good one, and one of the hardest to accomplish for me, because, as a fantasy writer, I love to “set the stage.” I constantly have to ask myself, “does the reader need to know this Right Now?” I hope that (sort of) answers your question. 🙂 Happy Writing!

      Liked by 1 person

  17. Another genuinely useful post! I find the first chapter the most difficult to write and know that it will need several re-writes before I’m happy with it. This advice should cut those re-writes considerably! There are some excellent tips here not only of what to do but what NOT to do. Many thanks, Diana. ♥♥

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks for the visit, Trish, and the kind comment. I massage my first chapter (first paragraph, first line) repeatedly. It gets a lot of attention because there’s so much to convey, but the pace has to be snappy too! Yeesh. I’m glad you found the post helpful. Happy Writing! ❤

      Liked by 1 person

  18. Pingback: Writing Chapter One – Tips | Legends of Windemere

We'd love to know what you think. Comment below.

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s