The Five Killer Tips I Used to Write Chapter One of my Book
I read everything I could on how to open strong. This is what I learned.
When I wrote my novel, The Aggressive, I knew from the start it would be divisive. It’s heavy on cursing, shocking violence and has an old-school ‘pulp sci-fi’ feel.
I understood that my stylistic choices wouldn’t be to everyone's tastes and so it was vital I opened strong.
The first chapter had to convince readers to stick with me; to trust I knew what I was doing and would deliver a solid read, despite deviating from more traditional sci-fi norms.
Whatever else can be said about the book, I believe I achieved that goal of a strong first chapter at least.
“The very first page had me hooked. You are thrown in the deep end without any arms bands or prior knowledge of what lurks beneath.”
This wasn’t an accident. Chapter one accounts for roughly 3% of the book, but received maybe 15–20% of my attention. No other chapter had more drafts, re-writes or edits. It was the first thing I wrote and the last bit I polished.
There’s a simple reason for this. If the reader isn’t engaged in chapter one, it doesn’t matter how amazing chapter two, seven or fifteen might be — they won’t get that far.
Now, I’m not a naturally gifted writer. Maybe some are. I’m not. But I am a grafter. When I want to do something well, I read everything I can find on that subject, boil it down and practice it myself. I read and watched everything I could get my hands on about putting together a strong first chapter.
Much of it was repetitive, obvious, or just plain wrong. Yet amongst the swathes of filler glistened the occasional killer nugget.
I’m not offering my own unique insights. I’m not that good. Just the fruits of hour upon hour of research condensed down into this article. This is what I discovered.
One — Strong characters, strong motivation, strong dialogue
A theme running through every source I came across was to strengthen these three areas. Powerful characters, well motivated and talking to each other, will hook your reader and drive the story forward. What does this mean in practice? Let’s break it down:
It’s tempting to focus first on that opening line. Don’t. This is overplayed. Instead, think about who you are opening with.
Put your protagonists front and centre in chapter one. Avoid focusing on minor characters who will get left behind. Think of any book you love and check who gets the focus in chapter one. Seriously, give it a go: Hunger Games? Katniss Everdeen. The Colour of Magic? Rincewind. Misery? Paul Sheldon.
They don’t have to be physically strong, heroic, or a badass, but they should be well developed, interesting and give the reader something to connect with. Speaking of which…
The purpose of chapter one is to get your reader to chapter two. This means your protagonist should want something. There should be a motivation driving them and so the story forward. What is it? Chapter one is your chance to make that crystal clear.
Consider the opening chapter of A Game of Thrones — in one chapter we learn that Ned Stark is driven by two things; family and honour. Job done. As stated on NowNovel.com:
“Introducing goals and motivations early gives your story an immediate sense of direction. The story already starts to move towards a chain of events driven by character psychology.”
Nobody says this better than Chuck Wendig:
“Give me dialogue. Dialogue is sugar. Dialogue is sweet… dialogue is the fastest way to me getting to know the character.”
In other words, dialogue is showing, not telling. It pulls the reader along and eases them into the story more accessibly than any other way.
Two — Keep it simple (limit back story, description & world-building)
“The setting serves the character; it does not stand on its own.” Readers do not expect, or want, detailed descriptions of time and place. There is a time and place for that, but it is not in the opening chapter. Sketch an outline, sure, but focus on characters and action.
You should give the reader a sense of when and where. However, leave the info dumps for later. As Wendig says, “you don’t need to build paragraph wall after paragraph wall giving endless details to support the when and the where.”
The temptation to info dump is so strong. It makes so much sense from a writer's perspective. How can a reader understand why Ser Bob of Knobblesocks chooses a brass cup for his poison if they don’t know about the rule of fallen metals beforehand? Right?
Yet consider it from a reader’s perspective. What reason do they have to care about backstory? It’s chapter one. There is no reason yet. Better to have them engaged with a character and intrigued by the action than bored with description without knowing where it is heading.
Three — Make chapter one a short story
Your chapter one is a taste of things to come, so think of it as a miniature taste of your story. You are saying to the reader, ‘if you think this chapter is good, you will LOVE the rest!’ So just like the overall story, give your opening chapter a narrative arc. What does this mean?
Start when the action begins.
Elizabeth Sims calls it a natural starting point, when the story is about to kick into action. This connects to point two above, begin with action and not description or a history lesson. Something should happen in the chapter, otherwise, what’s the point?
This doesn’t necessarily mean dropping the reader into a life or death situation with no context, as that can be confusing. But get to the action in short order.
It’s fine to use chapter one as an insight into our characters ‘normal’ world. But rather than plough through thousands of words of dull normality, begin on the precipice of action. The wonderful Jenna Moreci expresses this very well:
Give your protagonist a problem to overcome. Create friction. This will allow you to reveal the different motivations at play and hook your reader. Conflict drives things forward. It engages and grips.
Resolve the conflict.
By resolving a problem early on, you allow readers an insight into who your protagonist is and how they behave. It should also leave your readers hungry for more. Ideally, you want to resolve the conflict of chapter one while leaving the mystery that underpins the whole book.
Start at a place where you can get to action quickly, develop character through conflict and resolve it while leaving the central mystery intact.
4. Make a strong promise
This point is one of psychology. In his book, ‘Letters to a Law Student’, Cambridge lawyer Nicholas McBride makes the point that the opening part of an academic essay is where the grade is decided. What he means is that an examiner will decide very quickly whether the writing is A grade, B grade or otherwise. After that they are merely deciding whether it is a strong, average or weak example of that grade.
This insight applies as much to fiction as academic writing. Your first chapter tells the reader what sort of writer you are. So get the basics right. Choose a point of view and a tense and stick to them. Polish everything. Keep it lean. Get the basics right. Spend more time revising, editing and writing chapter one than any other chapter.
The thrust of this point is that you should spend time on chapter one once your first draft is finished. It will not be perfect first time round. That’s fine. Just get through it and finish the book. Then come back to it. Craft it. Re-shape it. Test it with alpha and beta readers. Your first chapter is a promise — make it strong and readers will stick with you.
5. Don’t be dull
Whether the advice is ‘include an inciting incident’, or ‘be bold’ or ‘make sure there’s a hook’ or whatever, the point is clear; don’t be dull. Turn everything up to eleven. Nobody wants a boring story.
Not being dull usually means doing some of the following:
- Make stuff BIG. Action? BIG. Romance? BIG. Don’t be subtle.
- Showing and not telling. Don’t tell me “Dave McBiggun was the sexiest man in the room”, show me! Show me his physique, how his muscular forearms ripple as he uncorks the champagne, how he confidently dismisses snide remarks from others with a rich, baritone laugh and how his mother-in-law can’t stop looking at the bulge in his trousers. Turn it up, dammit.
- Introduce a brain-tickling mystery that needs to be resolved over the course of the book (this was my own weapon of choice in The Aggressive).
- Finish on a cliff-hanger. It should be unfathomable that your reader might end chapter one and think, I don’t need to read anymore, that’s everything I need from this book.
- Make the most of your voice. Whatever it is that makes your book, your book, amplify it. This, finally, is often reflected in your first line. If you really do want to read more about great opening lines and the theory behind them, you could do worse than here.
There it is. I know there’s plenty more advice out there. For me, this was the advice that worked. May it work for you too.