The first chapter is often approached with fear. Even the most inexperienced writer knows that the first chapter decides whether the reader will read any further, whether they will buy the book. That is why writers need to understand what elements are so compelling. And that’s what I’m talking about today!
Here are 5 tips to hook your readers from the start!
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Tip 1 - Start with an Action Scene
Action scenes are always effective in gaining the reader's attention, no matter the chapter in your story. The action scenes are when all the elements are in the air, changes are made incredibly fast and you don’t know how the characters and story will look by the end of it. A good action scene makes any story a lot more interesting.
When a reader picks up a novel, they are looking for that initial burst of energy that tells them that the story isn’t so slow. There needs to be a moment where tension is established, a moment that makes the reader interested in what happens next. The action scene certainly won’t take the whole chapter, but those first few paragraphs are the best moments to get the reader excited.
Now, there are several ways you can do this.
You can introduce a tense moment in the story that transpires later, giving the reader a taste of what is to come after the first few chapters. Or, you can create a fake action scene, one where something truly exciting is happening, but it’s some mundane activity.
For example, it seems your character is being hunted in the forest and they are doing their best to hide, but it turns out they were just playing hide-and-seek with a friend.
Or you can truly start with the action, throwing the characters into a mess and leaving the reader to sort out what has happened as they deal with the problem. It won’t leave much introduction that is typical of fiction, but it has been known to work before.
Some popular novels that start with an action scene include The Hunger Games, The Martian, and The Da Vinci Code. All start with the protagonist being thrown into the action or at least establishing that something incredible has just begun. These kinds of introductions to stories are usually enough to interest the reader, but here are some other tips to round out your first chapter.
Tip 2 - Establish the Setting and Tone for Your Story
The reader needs to know what kind of story they are getting themselves into. As I discussed in a previous post, they have certain expectations of a story when they pick it up, it is your job to introduce them to your story.
Great thrillers start with some kind of tension, whether it be a nail-biting scene or an anxious protagonist. Fantasy genres establish exciting characters in an interesting world space. Science-fiction novels start with characters in a similar, but in a more technological world space, where the world has been shaped by the innovations of mankind, for better or worse.
Your first chapter needs this much too.
A reader wants to see where the story takes place, they need some world-building elements. They need the feeling of the kind of story they are in for, and that entirely depends on your chosen genre. Now, this is easy enough to establish during an action scene, as these scenes are often unique to their genre, but it is also easy not to include the details that shape the world space.
How often do you read a good book where the first and second chapters clash in tone and setting? Never.
Be sure to keep the tone and setting in mind when you are writing the first chapter.
Tip 3 - Introduce Your Protagonist in a Compelling Way
That brings us to the protagonist.
There are many ways to introduce your protagonist and some choose to introduce them in a later chapter, rather than the first. If that is the case for your novel, this is some advice you can still use to gain reader interest.
Every writer wants to get their reader attached to the protagonist, they want the character to be compelling for the reader to care about the character. Your reader won’t care about the story if the character isn’t someone, or something, that they can empathize with. That is something you need to establish as soon as possible and hopefully solidify by the time the inciting incident transpires in your story, of course, that can be any chapter.
Here are a few ways to introduce your character compellingly.
First, sympathy. The protagonist is placed in a bad situation and suffers greatly from it. A compassionate reader, who sees this character as a good person undeserving of such a bad situation, will immediately start rooting for them. Your character might be mugged, attacked, lose someone close to them, the list goes on. Harry Potter wouldn’t have received such a reader attachment as he did if his parents were still alive.
Second, charisma. The protagonist can win over the reader with their charm. Charm comes in many ways, it could be their cunning in a tense situation, their style, or simply amusing dialogue. A reader likes an entertaining character, but try not to spoil the character’s charisma with ego.
Third, relatability. We are all humans and the reason we get along, at least for the most part, is because we experience the same highs and lows. A down-to-earth character who experiences the same hardships we do is immediately relatable and if written well, it will be easy for the reader to see themselves in the character. Your character could lose their job, start their first day at a new school, fall in love with someone at a cafe, or hang out with friends after work.
These are just a few ways to write compelling protagonists and you can work one or more of these into your first chapter, or the chapter you do introduce your protagonist.
Tip 4 - Create Conflict
The first chapter shouldn’t be one where everything goes well. There need to be some bad moments, bad decisions, or an argument. Anything that says that the world isn’t so peaceful that the protagonist, or other characters, will encounter no problems.
Conflict is the foundation of character and plot development. A story only progresses when there is a clash of some kind, whether a character lacks the skills to overcome an obstacle or two nations decide they don’t like each other and declare war. Whatever it may be, introducing some form of conflict in your first chapter is a great way to gain reader interest.
I should say that conflict doesn’t have to be so grand. Simply a mistake, a bad decision, or the introduction of an obstacle, however big or small, is enough. Conflict is used throughout great stories to help a character learn from their mistakes, grow as a person and overcome the trials in the story. In addition, it progresses the story, each conflict being a step closer to the incredible conclusion.
If you plan to include an action scene in your first chapter, you can include conflict there. The conflict you focus on could be the reason the action scene transpires, or it could be created from the result of the action scene. Either way, it’s an interesting element that can be used to further your story.
Tip 5 - Show, Don’t Tell
As a writer, I am sure you have heard this phrase a million times. One of the most important things to keep in mind when writing descriptive passages is to show, not tell. This means using sensory details and specific, concrete words to paint a picture for the reader, rather than simply telling them what is happening.
One technique for showing, rather than telling, is to think of as many ways to express a simple statement.
For example, let’s say your character is cold. You can sum up exactly how they feel with a simple statement, either in narration or dialogue, ‘John felt cold’. However, you can make this statement a lot more interesting, as well as capture the tone of the scene. For a neutral description, you could have “John pulled his jacket tighter around him after a shiver ran down his spine.” For a happier scene, “John smiled when his breath came out as a wispy cloud.” And for an unhappy scene, “John rubbed his aching hands and arms, the cold making them cramp painfully as he trudged through the snow.”
There are so many opportunities to write a more atmospheric and immersive story. And that is certainly something you want to do in your first chapter.
The first chapter is often the most difficult to write, but for other reasons than the pressure of writing a chapter that hooks the reader. Typically, this is when the writer is trying to get into the swing of things, find a feel for their story, and build momentum in writing it.
I think that is a far more grueling obstacle for beginner writers and for that reason I encourage you to write the best first chapter you can, but don’t fret over it if you want to progress your story. After your first chapter is finished, progress to the second chapter and keep writing your novel until the first draft is done. Once completed, then look at making edits and rewriting segments.
A stellar first chapter is meaningless if a book doesn’t follow.
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Thank you for reading and as always,
Good day, goodnight, and happy writing!