How to start your first chapter

by Trinity
(Louisville)

Question: How should I begin the first chapter? What techniques are there?

Answer: Obviously, the challenge with first chapters is to convince the reader that the story which follows will be worth reading. It's a tough assignment because you have to present at least one character your reader will take an interest in (probably your main character), get your plot rolling, and establish an appealing style and voice for your narrator.

Regarding plot, I suggest you begin by checking out the article "Beginning in medias res" (http://www.how-to-write-a-book-now.com/in-medias-res.html) in which I discuss one of the key techniques for your first chapter, and four particular options dramatica theory offers you.

Essentially, you want your first chapter to be about an event. It is about something that happens that sets the plot in motion and gives the characters a new purpose. It may be a decision or an action, but either way it is something that cannot be undone.

Whatever this event is, it will also reveal something about the characters involved, such as their way of handling situations and their conflicts (internal and/or external). In the case of your main character, you may want to give the reader a reason to like him/her or at least relate to him/her.

You don't want a lot of description or background, and definitely no preamble (you can fill this in later). Give just enough specific details to establish the basic who, what, when, and where so the reader isn't lost.

At the end of the chapter, leave your reader wondering what will happen next - what the fallout of your opening event will be.

The other thing you want is a great opening line - something that is not a cliche and which grabs the readers interest. Not an easy task, so you may want to have several tries at it.

Comments for How to start your first chapter

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Jun 19, 2011
Story goal in first scene?
by: DL Morrese

Should the story goal be made evident in the first scene/first chapter? The way I have laid out my scenes, the main character does not discover the story goal until the second chapter. In the first chapter, he puts himself in a dangerous situation not related to the story goal but which does serve to introduce him to one of the major impact characters.

Jun 19, 2011
Up to you.
by: Glen

The Story Goal doesn't have to be established in the first chapter, though it could be. However, it does have to be established by the end of Act 1 (if you think in terms of a 4-act structure), otherwise the reader may start feeling dissatisfied and wonder just what the story is about. It also helps to remind the reader what the goal is, or re-establish it, now and then (Dramatica suggests once per act).


Jul 24, 2011
I may be a bit late
by: Anonymous

My main character doesn't actually get to where the whole story takes place -(in another world) until the fourth or fifth chapter. The very first chapters do, however give something very important, but you don't know that for a while. I just used most of the first chapter to give my main character a typical day, to show just how much her life is going to change. I'm not sure if that's how to do though.

Jul 25, 2011
Typical day?
by: Glen

Again, I'd suggest you start with an event. If you start with "typical" day, you risk not grabbing your reader's attention. Better to start with something atypical. Something interesting. You can always give a glimpse of the character's normal life in chapter 2.

That doesn't mean you have to send her to the other planet in Chapter 1. You can start with events that illustrate her personal difficulties or inner conflicts on earth. Just don't write an opening in which nothing important happens.

Oct 02, 2012
Character Names
by: Anonymous

I have trouble giving my main character the appropriate name. I have a whole list, but none of them seem right for my main character. Any advice? The main character is a girl, and here are the options;

Kelly

Erica

Claire

Cole

Oct 03, 2012
re: names
by: Glen

If nothing grabs you yet, try scrolling through baby names websites. They often tell you what names mean, which names were popular in certain years, and other helpful information.

Jul 28, 2013
How long should the first chapter be
by: Bre

I started my first chapter out appropriately. It starts with a tiny bit of background, I gave a little detail and went into depth a bit about a certain character (the story line of my book is a little complex so adding that detail was necessary.) Then bam I jumped strait into the event. The event how ever isn't starting to happen until about page 5. I would like to go with this event until I could leave a really good cliff hanger to make my readers want to read further. I am just a little afraid of making my first chapter a little too long. Is there such thing? Thanks.

Jul 29, 2013
Response
by: Glen

Hi Bre:

Readers often look for a chapter break to take a break in their reading. So breaks should occur at comfortable intervals.

One option, if you think your chapter is getting long, is to take your event and see if it divides into its own 3-4 part structure. How does it begin? How does it get more complicated? Where does it reach a crisis? How does it get resolved?

You may be able to insert a chapter break between the sub-events. For instance, could the chapter end just when a complication is revealed, or when the crisis of this event arises? Think of this as a mini-cliff hanger.

Aug 27, 2013
Writing the first chapter after the prologue
by: Matt L.

Thanks for the article! Great advice.

So here's a dilemma I'm in. I'm writing a sci-fi novel, and I've started it off with a prologue that is written in-scene several years before the main story takes place. The scene pretty much jumps right into some action, and reveals some details that will be relevant later in the story. In this scene, there is an important character who gets killed, and whose death has several far-reaching consequences that will affect the lead protagonist (who is not yet born at this time).

The "first chapter" (though I don't label them as chapters) then skips 23 years later to my main protagonist, but I'm at a loss as to where I should go from there. I've established in my own notes who my main protagonist is, what he does for a job (basically a mercenary), and what his personal struggles are, but I'm unsure how best to introduce him and the world he lives in. Originally I thought of dropping the reader into the middle of one of his jobs, with lots of gunfire and explosions, but then I thought maybe that's a bit too sudden, since the prologue was already pretty action-packed. So, with this being where the main story begins, is it best to start it with a big event involving the protagonist, or have I already accomplished that with the prologue? And since I've already possibly done that with the prologue, do I take some time now to introduce the world that my character lives in?

Aug 27, 2013
Response
by: Glen

Your instinct to vary the pace is a good one. Certainly, you want the first appearance of the main character to be an event - a change - that both shows the reader who he is and propels the plot forward.

However, not every change has to be an external action. Making a decision is also a change.

For instance, you could start the main character's story immediately after he's finished a job - but it's a job that has had a profound impact on him, causing him to make a decision that will change his life from then on.

Just a thought.

P.S. The best way to introduce the story world is to follow the main character through it, adding details as he perceives them, but avoiding an info dump.

Sep 04, 2013
Unsure
by: Rebecca R.

Hi Glen!

I am in the middle of editing a book, and am a little concerned for the first chapter. It starts off at a slower pace, but by two pages in quickens up. It seems those two pages are very essential, but I don't know if a reader will continue to read a book that isn't - bam - action.
Also, my main story plot doesn't come about to the second chapter. Instead the first focuses on meeting other characters, and the sub plot. Is that all right if done well, or should I jump head on into what the book is about?

Sep 04, 2013
Response to Unsure
by: Glen

The first page should grab the reader's interest, but you don't have to start with action. An interesting voice is just as, if not more, effective. Also, bear in mind that a decision counts as an event as much as an action, if it propels the story forward.

Also, as I've said elsewhere, the first event doesn't have to be part of the overall plot. It could be an event that establishes the main character's inner conflict, the impact character's influence, or their relationship.

It could even be the first event in a subplot, as long as it makes the reader want to keep reading.

Jan 03, 2014
First time
by: Latasha

Hi this is my first time on doing this and just want some help and I been want go do this a long time but never had a chances to do it help

Jan 07, 2014
Writer's block?
by: Anonymous

I'm having a bit of trouble starting off the first chapter. I have my prologue finished and I'm extremely happy with that! I just can't seem to think of a catchy sentence to start it off with. Thank you, I greatly appreciate it:)

Apr 14, 2014
Which character to use?
by: Joset

I am starting to write my first chapter, and I'm not sure which of my four main character's POV to use. They all equally contribute to the plot in different ways, and they all have extremely different voices and stories as far as how they all meet each other. Help?

Apr 14, 2014
To: Josef
by: Glen

Does one of the four characters make a crucial decision at the climax that determines the outcome? If so, that is probably your true main character. If not, then all I can suggest is that you write the start of all four of their stories and see which one seems to grab the reader's interest more. (You may want to show all four openings to some people and get their feedback.)

Apr 24, 2014
How to make conflict story?
by: Anna

This is my first time make story, and I like to begin the story with family conflict.

Do you have any advice how to make a conflict story in first chapter?

Thank you.

Nov 18, 2014
Time
by: Dani

Well, I've been writing for a few years but I've never written a novel the way I'm writing this one.

I'm wanting to almost tell two stories in one. Well, a story and a part of that story. If I wrote the events in chronological order, it'd be boring in the beginning. I thought, since I'm writing in multiple POVs, I could use one section to go back and explain how they got from section one to section two, in section three. I'm not sure how to do this without leaving readers confused.

I've read a few books that do the same thing to see how to do it, but it seems like they just write and then it happens. Any advice?

Nov 18, 2014
To Dani, re: non-chronological beginnings
by: Glen

There is a sort of rule of thumb that says you should begin where the story gets interesting, and cut any preamble. Apart from making a more effective beginning, you can use this technique to create a little mystery -- make the readers wonder what's going on and then fill them in later, after they're hooked on the story.

Of course, when you go back and tell the beginning of the story from the second character's POV, it would be even better if you can find a way to make that opening event more interesting. For instance, now that the reader knows what's coming, can you work in some dramatic irony? Can you make something that was innocuous from the main character's POV be very significant from the second POV?

For example, might something the main character did without a thought unknowingly change the course of events for someone else?

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