Beginnings can be tricky. You have to catch the attention of a reader with 758 other books in their TBR or an agent or editor with a gazillion submissions in their inbox. No pressure, right?
First chapters are so HARD to get right, but by understanding how that first chapter functions as well as some general rules, you can take some of the sting out of dealing with them. I've included five examples from romance books that do it well. I've also included a couple of resources I've found helpful at the end.
So how do you hook that reader? Let's start with what the first chapter has to do.
Introduce your main character.
Fill up the conflict tank.
Start as late as you can.
Meet the Promise of your Premise.
That's it. Of course it's not quite that simple, so let's break it down.
Introduce Your Main Character
We want to meet your main character as soon as possible--within the first few paragraphs. Distill them down to their main essence and show the reader as quickly and clearly as you can who the character is and why we should care. And we care about characters who are relatable and compelling, and one way to make sure your character is relatable and compelling is to give them a goal, a reason they want it (motivation brought about by wounds and misbeliefs), and something standing in their way.
Fill Up The Conflict Tank
Conflict drives the story, making your characters react and act, generating new conflict, and on and on. You won't have any conflict if your character doesn't want something, so it goes hand in hand with goal and motivation mentioned above. The conflict you introduce in chapter one doesn't have to be The Big Conflict of the Story, not yet, but there should be something that makes the reader need to know WHAT HAPPENS NEXT??? Back that character into a corner and see what they do.
Start as Late as You Can
Start five minutes before the action begins. I like this piece of advice, but sometimes (especially in some sub-genres) it's impossible to know what "the action" is. Hint: it's the character dealing with conflict.
If you start with the character in the middle of the action, you risk leaving the reader confused**, so that's where starting just before can be a handy trick. Give the reader just enough so they care about this character, and drop them in it.
**Sometimes, starting in the action can work. It really depends on the book, so getting feedback from sources you trust is important here. There are always exceptions to every rule.
There's advice out there to show your character in their normal world--a sort of slice of life. I don't really like this one because I think writers sometimes take it to mean write 1-3 chapters of Normal World**. Only the most forgiving of reader wants to read that--a character without conflict isn't a story, after all. Instead of a slice of life, try a whiff and thread it into the narrative. And once that character leaves their normal world behind, you can very easily imply a lot about that old normal world as you write what the new world isn't.
**Fun exercise, especially if you're just starting out. Try starting at chapter 3. Anything necessary to the story from the first two chapters can likely be threaded into the narrative or put in a flashback.
The Promise of the Premise
Your first page (and first chapter and whole book, actually) really need to match the premise that you are promising the reader. If your back cover copy/query blurb is promising a rolicking adventure romance but you deliver a snoozefest, the reader/agent/editor will probably put it down and move on to something else. If there's a mismatch, it might be that the problem lies in the cover copy or query blurb, but it could be that the book isn't starting in the right place and maybe a different scene would work better.
What about the things you shouldn't do in a first chapter?
The following are rules you shouldn't break, and the general reason why you shouldn't break them is that too many people have done it in the past and it's become cliche and boring. Also, these days, you're competing with more than books for a reader's attention--social media, streaming services, video games, etc--and more and more of these things start with a bang. So you have to start with a bang (not literally, although...)
So, don't start your novel**:
With a cliché, like the main character waking up, or looking in a mirror, or talking about the weather. If you need to do this in a first draft just to get some words on that blank page, do it--you can cut it during revisions. Just don't get attached.
Don't bog the reader down in too much information--aka no infodumping. Try to weave any pertinent information into the narrative instead of dumping it into paragraph after paragraph. Related: don't infodump in dialogue. That's called a "You know, Bob" and if Bob knows, why are they talking about it like that?
Don't start with a prologue. Okay, this one is tricky because some books still work well with a prologue (especially in some sub-genres) but most will benefit from starting at chapter 1. How do you know if your story is a prologue-needing unicorn? Get feedback. Try it without a prologue. Get more feedback. Read books published in the last few years that have prologues and see if you can figure out why it works (or maybe doesn't), and if those reasons apply to your book.
Don't introduce too many characters at once. This goes along with info dumping as both can overwhelm the reader. If you open with lots of characters and there's no way around it, make sure the characters who get named have varied names (they can't all start with the letter 'A'), and give characters short, impactful descriptions that can allow us to immediately identify that person, a cheery kindergarten teacher or a dour principal, for example (use archetypes NOT stereotypes).
Don't dump the character into too much action or leave them stuck in inaction, as discussed earlier.
**Sometimes, you can break the rules BUT it’s important to know when and why and how, so if that’s what you want, check your genre or sub-genre expectations, read beginnings by authors who break the rules and succeed at it, and try to see if those situations apply to your manuscript. Odds are, they won’t. BUT they might and at the end of the day, it’s your book. Tell it how you want.
Examples of First Chapters That Work
It’s worth your time to scroll through your kindle or look through your shelves (or library or local book store). Pick up a few books, read the first few pages or the entire first chapter, and study what the author is doing. Are there any books that have made you think about that first chapter long after you put them down? Reread them.
I've included five examples below of books that I think have great beginnings. Some are very compelling, others are quieter. A lot of it depends on the author's voice and the needs of the story, but they all give us a character with a problem that we can get behind, leaving us this strong desire to find out what happens next.
The Wisteria Society of Lady Scoundrels by India Holton
The first paragraph tells us that Cecilia couldn’t go to the library in prose that gives the reader a strong sense of Cecilia and her normal world with her aunt (and it lets the reader know that this isn't your typical historical romance--the promise of the premise). But then there’s a knock at the door.
The chapter shows Cecilia and her aunt’s reaction to the knock (which is to attempt to ignore it before eventually giving in), the discovery that the caller is a pirate who has arrived to warn Cecilia that there is a contract on her life. Boom, conflict.
Afterhours on Milagro Street by Angelina M Lopez
The first paragraph introduces us to Alex as she battles an asshole door. We learn she’s a bartender, she’s just moved, and is not entirely happy to have left her life behind. The building also is introduced as a character, one she is in immediate conflict with.
The rest of the chapter clearly lays out Alex’s goals, her motivation, and the problems she’s facing at the start of the story. And uh…it gets spicy, lining up conflict for the MCs, who appear to be very much opposites. Angelina nails first chapters and knocks them out of the park so definitely give her books a read!
The Astronaut and The Star by Jen Comfort
The first six paragraphs tell us everything we need to know about the main character Reggie. She’s smart and extremely competitive. And she’s got a problem: she’s not a team player. But she needs to show that she can be a team player to get her goal. I love an unlikable heroine and Reggie is definitely that--she's also extremely relatable and compelling. Who among us hasn't been frustrated by an annoying less than perfectly competent coworker?
D’Vaughn and Kris Plan a Wedding by Chencia C. Higgins
This book opens with an advertisement for a reality TV show, setting up the first chapter, where D’Vaughn learns she’s gotten onto the show, possibly because she’s yet to come out to her family. It sets up the premise beautifully—to win, D’Vaughn has to convince her family that her wedding to a stranger is the real deal, not faked for a reality show. It's a quieter build than some of the ones above, but it does it's job beautifully.
Falling For the Enemy by Katie Golding
These characters have a history, and we’re given just enough of it to understand their relationship and the conflict between them, a good example of giving backstory without info dumping. This is also a novella and starting as soon as possible is even more important when you only have 40k to play with.
**Links will take you to the zon, but please consider purchasing from your local indie bookseller, if you have one.
So Let's Get Started!
If your first chapter introduces a compelling and relatable main character and sets them up with some conflict as close to the action as possible and delivers on the promise of your premise, you're on the right track to hooking your reader/agent/editor! Starting a novel with a great beginning is a skill that takes time and practice to develop, so study how authors you admire do it. If you have any tricks or tips, or advice you find helpful, leave it in a comment or send me an email!
If you want to listen to some real experts talk about what makes a great beginning, check out this episode of Fated Mates. This podcast is one of my favorite resources for writing, and while it is mostly geared toward readers, there is a lot of craft advice you can glean. Transcripts are available on their website, too.
This blog post on the first 250 words by Maryann Marlowe is one I recommend to people a lot. It’s invaluable if you’re querying, but even if you aren’t, it can be worth a refresher.
If you want more information on emotional wounds, as well as GMC (goal, motivation, conflict), check out The Emotional Wound Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi, or the blog on their website: https://writershelpingwriters.net/
Oh hey, a checklist!
Psst...this is what it looks like if you don't want to download it:
Come back next time--I'll be breaking down Act 1!