The first chapter is all about introductions. You introduce your characters, your theme and more. Yet, you also introduce yourself as a writer. You show the reader how you will tell the story. The style in which you give details and the atmosphere of your story. Making a good impression becomes the main stress in your first chapter, as you don’t want to make a mistake in your story or your style.
It sounds like an intimidating task, so let’s make it easy and enjoyable!
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1. Know Your Plot
Many writers jump into writing without much thought, which is why their first chapters often have to be rewritten several times throughout the story.
You want to avoid that pain, as it not only takes up time but can have a harsh effect on your enjoyment. You might end up with an entirely different first chapter after your rewrite, leaving you with the thought of starting again. You want to have confidence in yourself and your writing, so you don’t want this to happen.
There are several solutions, but you only need two.
The first solution is to simply write your first chapter after you have thoroughly planned the plot and come to understand its core concept. Of course, you can’t predict everything you are going to write, as you might decide to approach a chapter from a different angle later on. Yet, by having a clear idea of your plot and what you want, you won’t stray too far from your original concept.
As a result, your first chapter will only need standard editing by the time you finish your novel, rather than a complete revision. Of course, the downside is spending more time on planning and there is a chance of restricting your writing.
The second solution is to write your first chapter last. A solution that appeals to many writers, as by the end of your novel you have a better idea of what your story is all about. You can then include the necessary information while keeping details that shouldn’t be revealed hidden.
Once more, the result is a chapter that will only need standard editing. The downside is that you break the flow of your novel and have to write from the second chapter, which can cause some annoying disruptions.
Yet, if you feel you know your plot well enough, without having to plan it deeply or write it out completely, then you won’t struggle as much when tackling these next points.
2. Introduce the Main Character
The ideal time to introduce your main character, protagonist or antagonist, is in the first chapter.
A reader picks a book off the shelf because they are made interested by a handful of elements. The cover, the title, the blurb on the back or inside the jacket. Yet, it is in the first chapters that we want to capture them. Think of the first chapter/s like the hook once the lure has done the job of bringing them in.
Your protagonist/antagonist must interest the reader. Boring them in the first chapter is a no-go. If you plan to tell a certain type of story, you must use an element of that type to gain the reader’s interest. If it is an action-adventure, have your main character do something involving action-adventure.
Now, this does not necessarily mean you have to include the inciting incident in the first chapter. Many authors do a great job of setting the scene and introducing the characters in the first two to three chapters, then include the inciting incident after that. So, if you plan to have your inciting incident a little later, that is fine.
What it means is you are giving the reader a bit of what they are looking for, a bit of what they are expecting thanks to your blurb. Whether it is a romantic scene, an amusing scene or a thrilling scene, the first character is introduced with this core element of your story.
In addition, don’t stress yourself about giving the reader every detail of your main character. Only bring up a detail when it applies. Don’t talk about their background unless it makes sense to do so. A name, some hint of motivation and a bit of personality doesn’t sound like much, but it goes a long way.
Keep this in mind and writing your character should be fun and easy.
3. Establish the Setting and the Atmosphere
With that major element discussed, let’s take a moment to address more relaxed elements of your first chapter; the setting and the atmosphere.
The reason these are more relaxed elements is that they are the colours of your drawing. You structure your plot and character with more definition, as they are crucial to your story. Yet, when it comes to setting the scene, establishing them and building atmosphere, you need to focus on the way you describe things, the tone that you set and so on.
All that boils down to is the way you naturally write.
You have an idea for a scene and what you want to happen. Yet, if you were to write it without descriptions, setting and atmosphere, you would only have a boring summary that lasts a few paragraphs. Since the rules aren’t strict in this regard, you only have some desired goals to keep in mind.
Your first goal is to ensure your readers know the setting.
What time period does your story take place in? What part of the world/galaxy? The society, the rules, how your characters act and so on. By establishing the setting, your reader can start to picture elements that you can’t talk about without boring them or wasting your time. These details are better left for the mind to fill in.
Your second goal is to get your reader in the right place mentally and emotionally. In other words, establishing the atmosphere and tone.
For example, in a darker novel, you want your reader to feel that dark atmosphere. You paint a negative picture, one that is scary, or off-putting or simply morbid. In doing so, we direct the reader into the right frame of mind, which will help when they need to fill in some details on their own.
As the story progresses, your atmosphere and tone will continue to reinforce these feelings. Yet, it is in the first chapters that you want to immerse your reader and keep them there until the end.
4. Take Your Time
Since the first chapter/s are so important, don’t be afraid to spend a lot of time writing them.
I understand that a lot of writers want to get into their story as fast as possible, to enjoy those key moments later on. I am certainly one of them. This is why I know how easy it is to rush the first chapter, to put all pieces in their places, so I can write at a comfortable pace without having to linger on details.
Yet, after spending more time on the first chapter, you will end up in a state of awareness, where you don’t write without thinking about what you are writing. You become more concerned about certain sentences and dialogues, putting yourself in your character’s shoes or imagining exactly how something looks, so that you may find the right word to use.
Of course, this can be more taxing for a writer who writes on instinct, using their natural writing style. Yet, if you want a great first chapter over a good first chapter, taking the time to make sure your message is exactly as you envision will help you.
Simply take a breath, read your work, see what you can add or what you can take away. You are trying to make something you are happy with, that you would read. Your instincts will tell you if you’ve missed the mark or hit the target.
5. Look at Popular Examples
The final piece of advice is to call upon what you believe is an excellent first chapter and use that as inspiration.
By no means am I saying create the same scenes but with your characters. Instead, examine how the author presents their details, their characters and the sequence they are all in. Studying professional authors' writing will go a long to help you understand how to effectively write.
After all, these are published writers, with editors, all working together to craft a book that appeals to the public as well as the proud author. By learning from great published writing, you develop your writing style into something better suited for publication and storytelling.
When finding such a first chapter, I recommend looking at books that are similar to your own, or at least similar in tone and style. That way you don’t contradict your story with a writing technique better suited for another genre.
With that said, I should mention an obvious warning.
You are not trying to copy a writer's style. Only better understand their sequence of writing as well as some techniques that worked well for you. From there, you write the story the way you want to write it while keeping these ideas in mind. You will manage your writing a bit better and maintain your personality.
When I wrote my first draft for my first book, I flew through the first chapter, excited for the next chapter which was always playing on my mind during the chapter I was on. Now, I am not exactly proud of my first book and that was after several rewrites and revisions.
Yet, with my first experience writing, I wanted to maintain the enjoyment factor as long as possible to fit my attention span. I was a teenager at the time, so it was pretty short and so was my first draft. I believe that my entire novel in the very first draft was around 30,000 words.
Obviously, I scrapped that draft, took some time off to focus on finishing school and then returned to replan and rewrite my novel. Also, make sure that it was a novel and not a rubbish novella.
From that first sentence to the finished book, I wrote the first chapter around ten times. Again and again, I started from scratch, using my understanding of the story to make a first chapter that had all I needed. I threw everything into that first chapter, from the main character to the inciting incident, to the motivation and more.
Since then, I learned to find my writing pace and use it effectively. The advice I have covered in this article is the boiled-down version of all the advice I received from articles, blog posts and books. I took what I could, found what worked for me and what worked for my students.
I do hope this advice covers all you want to know because now I am going to tell you exactly what you need to know.
The average reader is difficult to scare away in the first chapter. It takes shocking spelling and grammar, repulsive characters and truly awful writing personality to make them put the book back on the shelf.
That means that the average reader will persist to the second and third chapter before they finally decide whether to continue the book or not. Now, you can take this fact as advice to focus on the first five chapters, but I believe that will only detract from the rest of your book.
I want you to keep this fact in mind so that you don’t stress yourself out in the first chapters of your novel. These are the chapters you should be excited about because it is the start of a wonderful creative project. You should write them at your own pace and do whatever you feel is right for your book.
If you can read your first chapters and enjoy them, then you shouldn’t look back at them until you finish your novel and start the editing phase, or perhaps a second draft.
I hope you enjoyed this article and as always,
Good day, goodnight and happy writing!