First chapters are POWERFUL. They can stop a shopper from casually flicking through the pages to see how the story ends and a publisher from tossing it in the slush pile bin. Readers are searching for a story beginning that grabs their attention, surprises them and makes them curious to the point of desperation to know what will happen next.
But how can you possibly do this in such a short space? In short, provide entertainment! And if you’ve maintained their interest to the end of the first chapter, then hopefully they’ll decide if it’s is worth investing their time and money to continue.
Every chapter has basic storytelling requirements to fulfil, like an opening and closing hook, character development, having a goal and conflict. The same goes for first chapters but they also carry the weight of additional responsibilities.
They have to:
- Provide the foundation for the story by introducing the underlying premise and context.
- Set the tone, perspective and time period.
- Pique the reader’s curiosity so they want to know more about the characters and their situation.
- Meet genre expectations.
No story starts at the beginning of a character’s life and tells every single thing that happens until they die; there just isn’t space. You are telling one part of someone’s life, which is specific to a particular goal they are trying to achieve. (Or one era of a civilisation, which is important to its survival or identity.)
Therefore, you need to provide the reader with the context of the story early on, so they understand what’s going on, e.g.:
- Setting the scene to let them know what era and location the story resides in, which might be a planet, region, country or town.
- Introducing the premise, i.e. the point of telling this particular story using these particular characters. It’s the basic idea that underlies everything that happens in the story. What is the reason for your main character making this journey? It might be anything from: trying to find their way home after being swept into a tornado and into a magical land (The Wizard of Oz); to surviving a fight to the death so they can get home to their family (The Hunger Games).
- Establishing any key facts they need to know in order to understand the story, e.g. critical world building, assumptions or conflict sources. Key facts are those which the reader absolutely must know to prevent them getting confused or heading down the wrong thought path.
- Letting them feel the tone of the story by creating an atmosphere that suits the genre and style. For example, you might start with a night scene or storm if the tone of the whole story is dark, or sunshine and cupcakes if the tone is light and fun.
- Allowing your storytelling voice to shine, through your word, character and plot choices. The arrangement of all of these choices is your personal style.
- Showing the perspective of the key character in the scene. Their attitude is an important tool to let readers experience their personality and world views, as are relevant to the plot.
The ability to convince readers to stick around for the length of an entire novel relies on being able to engage them during the first chapter. To do this you need to make them care about (or at least be interested in) the characters and their immediate situation. You do this by piquing their curiosity.
One part of this is to raise questions the reader wants answered and this means dropping hints that things are not right in the world of your characters. There is nothing readers love more than puzzling out what drives characters. In truth, it’s a way of making sense of the world around us and the people who inhabit it. So, hint at what is missing from your character’s life, what struggles they are facing initially or what they are dreading in the future.
Here are some examples from the very first page of my book Inheriting Fear.
- Learning how to kick-box had given her courage. No longer a victim, but in control. Instantly, the reader wants to know how this woman suffered as a victim and how she has taken control of her life now.
- Fear was just an emotion and she could overcome those with steely resolve. This insight into the character’s personality is meant to intrigue the reader. What kind of woman would need to develop a steely resolve against her fears?
- Mya turned around slowly. The hood guy had turned around too, and his left hand held a beer stubby, but not at the base like he was about to take a swig. His long fingers were wrapped around the neck of the bottle, making it look more like a weapon. Now, the reader is worried about the safety of this woman and the outcome of her immediate situation.
All of these are hints of information that intrigue the reader and raise questions that will keep them reading. This leads us to the second part of piquing a reader’s curiosity, which is evoking an emotional reaction from them.
You can accomplish this by creating a vivid, textured world they feel a part of, making them care, sympathise or at least be interested in the character, and giving that character something significant to lose. The anticipation of curiosity and the anxiety of uncertainty is a powerful potion to hook readers in so they can’t put the story down.
Readers have certain expectations of their favourite genres and you ignore them at your own peril. For example:
- In a romance story they expect the hero and heroine to meet in the first chapter (or two at the most), and have some idea of the inner turmoil that is keeping them apart.
- In crime they expect a dead body right away.
- In a mystery they expect to discover something intriguing enough to want to puzzle it out.
- In sci-fi and fantasy they expect world-building that ties into the plot and sets logical rules for aspects that are different to Earth.
- In chick lit they expect a light-hearted look at issue modern women face.
One of the worst mistakes authors make in first chapters is to dump information in a passive way. Keep in mind that you don’t have to spell everything out right away — in fact it’s usually better if you only hint at many elements early on and then gradually build on the information throughout the story. Plus, keeping characters in action and with other characters provides plenty of opportunities for interesting showing of information.
We’ve explored what a first chapter needs to achieve in order to grab a reader’s attention, and looked at how to do that by laying a solid foundation of critical information, evoking emotions and raising the reader’s curiosity.
If you’d like to delve deeper into your first chapter to make sure it will reel readers and publishers in and survive scrutiny, then join Sandy Vaile for the Fantastic First Pages workshop, starting on 22nd June 2020.
Mild-mannered kindergarten teacher, Neve Botticelli, leads a double life. At home with her paranoid father, she is a combat trained survivalist who lives off-the-grid.
When self-made billionaire, Micah Kincaid, storms into town in search of his four-year-old son, Rowan, he’s pushy, entitled, and stands for everything Neve despises.
But something far more sinister than a cheating estranged wife, is lurking in rural Turners Gully, and it has its sights set on little Rowan’s inheritance. It turns out there is one thing Micah and Neve can agree on, and that’s keeping Rowan safe.
As they work together to free Rowan, they glimpse beneath one another’s guises, and realise that falling in love could be even more dangerous than hunting deadly criminals.