I am so excited about this topic because writing a first chapter is my absolute favorite part of writing a book. It might be because I don’t really plot out my books, I have a general idea of where it’s going, but starting a new book means there are going to be so many mysteries to unlock and characters to discover. I also find when done properly it can be incredibly exciting.
I know that everyone has a different way of doing writing first chapters, but these are a few key factors I like to rely on. Keep in mind that I write fantasy for YA, and you should always write your first chapters within the structure of your genre. Also, I have a tendency to write fast-paced openings that drop you right into the middle of the action, so if fast-paced isn’t your style my post might not be for you. However, I’d love to hear from you in the comments if you write openings differently anyway.
Hold Back on the Details
Yes, I know, you’ve created this really incredible world filled with magic systems, laws, new nations, political strife, among so many other things and you’re excited to dig into this world and show the reader everything you created. However, and I’m sure you’ve heard this before, be careful not to create information overload. That’s when you provide so many details that either your reader can’t absorb all the information or your writing can become slow and dull because it is weighed down with detail. Instead, introduce your world slowly overtime. It’s fine to introduce a couple aspects of your world if they are relevant to your first chapter, or important for the understanding of your second chapter, but try not to ‘info dump’. Remember your reader has an entire book to explore your world and it will be much more satisfying if they can remember all the little details because you paced yourself in exploring that world.
Focus on One Main Character
When I open a book, I want to know why I should care about the main character. My current book is written from multiple perspectives, so for the first chapter I focused on one character in particular. Opening with a strong character can really ground your readers immediately in the book. They know who they are following. But introducing a lot of characters, even in third person omniscient view, can make it difficult for readers to know who they should be following. You can introduce a few characters in the first chapter, but I always try to focus on one character specifically because it gives a focus for your reader. I think grounding them in your world is really important.
Have a Goal
I’ve seen it written a few times: your first chapter should read almost like a short story. I agree with this and I don’t. When I write my first chapter I certainly have a goal in mind, something that my character is trying to achieve. It doesn’t have to be a big goal, but there should be something. And unlike a short story that ends quickly, your opening needs to set up the rest of your book. Whatever your character is achieving, or striving for, should be important to the rest of the plot. So, as you write your opening chapter try to have a self-contained goal that can be achieved that also relates to the second chapter and overall story line. It can be tricky, but I think it’s an effective way to write.
There should be something at stake. It doesn’t have to be a life or death situation, but provided you have a goal for your first chapter, you should also try to create tension around it. That tension, or suspense, will keep your readers interested. The best way to achieve this tension in such a short amount of time is to make sure each of the characters in the chapter want something. Then put an obstacle in their way. Right there you have tension, suspense and stakes.
Best Practices for First Chapters
- Don’t overwhelm the reader with too many details
- Introduce only one or two main characters
- Have something that the character is trying to achieve
- Tension will keep your reader reading
Of course I’m not an expert by any means, I just find these tips have worked really well for me, at least within my genre of choice. There are many ways to write opening chapters, but if you’re looking to have an emotionally charged and fast-paced opening I hope my post was helpful to you.
If you have any other tips, or write in a different genre and style so your openings are different feel free to comment! I’d love to heard about it!