How to start writing the first chapter of a book [Complete guide]

How to start writing the first chapter of a book

First chapters need to rock. We all know this. So how do you start writing the first chapter of a book? I Googled the heck out of this question, read a lot of stuff, watched a bunch of videos and wrote a LOTS of stuff down. I've distilled information from over one hundred individual points into five key lessons.

1. 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:

Strong characters
Strong characters - Katniss Everdeen

It's tempting to focus first on that opening line. Don't. 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...

Strong motivation

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 therefore 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, "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."

Strong dialogue

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,

2. 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 Chuck says, "you don’t need to build paragraph wall after paragraph wall giving endless details to support the when and the where."

3. 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: if you are going to show your protagonist at school, show them at the end of the last lesson, don't drag us through the entire school day with them!

Add conflict

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.
  • 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
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That's it - go write your awesome opening chapters!

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