How to write a first chapter

Wondering how to write a good first chapter of a novel? Writing an opening chapter is something that sets many new writers on edge. Where to start? How to start? Why to start?

How to write a first chapter of a novel isn’t that terrifying. Reassuringly, it’s something hardly anyone gets right on the first go, and it’s the easiest part of a story to go back to and edit. Your first version will likely come when you plot your first draft, and will morph as you work on each subsequent version.

The below advice is written from the perspective of what entices and grabs a reader across many genres. It includes tips that’ve worked for me in my novels and also little tips from other authors too. But there’s something to be said for also being experimental. Trying new approaches to writing an opening chapter or first paragraph can be exhilarating for both the reader and the writer.

So when wondering how to write a good first chapter, take the below advice on board but tailor it all to your own particular book. Because no-one can tell your story better than you.

How to write a good first line of a novel

First things first (ah, the irony), don’t worry too much about this when you first set out to write a novel. The important thing is that you write something. Anything. And then that you keep going, keep writing, keep typing.

Your novel’s first line will be something that you come back to again and again while editing. It might well be the first and last thing an author writes. But if you want a good chance of getting it right at the beginning, a novel’s opening should ideally invite a reader to think, “Oooh,” or “What the hell?” It should inspire curiosity, intrigue, or even confusion (as long as this confusion is at least partly explained in the following paragraphs).

How to write a good first paragraph of a novel

The best first paragraphs are often simple, clear, and relatively short. Too long an introduction and the reader can easily get lost.

Use a novel’s opening paragraph to invoke a strong sense of something in the reader. By this, I mean a strong mental image, or a powerful emotion. A relatable sensation that the reader can visualise or experience for themselves.

This is some advice based on what is known to hook readers (and publishers), but feel free to be experimental here! Personally, I love to encounter a story that’s fresh and unique. Not just in terms of plot, but in the way it’s told.

Introduce your main character

The main point of a first chapter is to make a reader care about their protagonist. When have you ever enjoyed a book where you didn’t care about the main character? You might not even like them, but you have to believe in them. You have to know what they do or think next.

If the book is written in first person, a character might not show exactly who they truly are, but they will invite a reader into their world. In third person, a reader might see them coping with an encounter, or watch as they go through the motions of their everyday life. Infuse as much character as you can as early as possible, so a reader has the chance to connect with them.

For everything you need to know about creating your cast, read my blog on how to build and write convincing characters.

Begin your world-building

At some point very soon, I’m planning on writing a blog exploring how to create a fictional world, but for now the most important thing to take on board is that – if you can – do as much of this as you can before you begin writing your novel.

Inevitably your world will grow as you write it, after all, you’re an explorer! But knowing the foundations of your fictional world before you start writing will set you on a path to the heart of your story.

Once you’ve finished your first draft, and maybe even written your second draft, or your third, that’s when it’s time to come back to the beginning and sprinkle some extra details from your world throughout the chapter. Places, temperatures, magic rules, laws, societal structure, religious beliefs… Whatever you can!

Need some tips for how to get started? Read my blog exploring how setting affects a story.

Set the tone

Whatever a reader encounters in chapter one will set the tone for the rest of the novel. The reader sets unconscious expectations of what will follow, and if the tone shifts totally or appears disjointed, that creates a disconnect.

Setting the tone correctly sets the wheels in motion for a coherent story. How would it feel to read the opening chapter of a ghost story, only for the novel to turn into a Mills & Boon romance? I’d be screaming, “Where are the ghosts, FFS?!”

Setting the tone is intricately linked to setting a clear narratorial voice, which leads us onto…

Introduce your main ‘voice’

Whether the novel used first or third person perspective (or anything in between!) it’s vital that a reader quickly understands who they’re allied to. When writing an opening chapter, be sure to have a clear sense of who is telling the story.

In the case of first person narratives, the first chapter is the point when we get to know our companion for the story, or at least, we get the chance to get to know the version of them they want to project. A protagonist could be putting on a brave face or be hiding secrets. They could be bursting with bravado. A feeling that a protagonist isn’t quite being honest with us is an intriguing conflict in itself.

Invoke a sense of conflict or impending change

Though an important aspect of the first chapter is to show the status quo of the fictional world, what will compel a reader to continue onto chapter two is an inkling that things are about to change.

Invoke a sense of impending change by incorporating some foreshadowing, or pepper your opening chapter with little odd moments where things don’t seem quite right. You might use the Checkov’s Gun principle – in which you lay mines throughout the text, only for them to explode in a later chapter. Another method is to create an enticing event at the close of the chapter, ending with a juicy cliffhanger.

Teased conflict could be between the protagonist and the antagonist, or could be a ‘thing; rather than a person – a job, money problems, or dreams quashed. Essentially, conflict is simple a thing that stands between the protagonist and their goal. Often my favourite conflict is within the protagonist themselves – their fears, social anxiety, or unconscious biases.

TOP TIP – Rewrite your opening chapter after drafting the ending

Writing a first draft is like pouring sand into a sandpit. It’s only after all the sand is in that you can bring out your bucket and spade and start building castles.

I find that once I’ve reached the end of a draft, I have a different understanding of the story I’ve told. It might be because the characters have done things I didn’t expect, or that I’ve changed the ending.

Regardless, a truly great opening needs to be re-written after the ending is determined. They need to balance each other, provide a reflection of the other, and clearly show the emotional journey that the protagonist has travelled.

I love writing opening chapters and first paragraphs. My first version is almost always wildly different to the last, and it’s probably the most edited section of the book, being tweaked right until the final manuscript is sent to print.

Some best opening chapters in novels

Need some inspiration when writing your opening chapter? The following list includes some of the most well-known best first chapters in literature. A few of these you can find for free online!

  • The Martian, by Andy Weir
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, by Mark Haddon
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain

Some best opening lines in novels

The following list includes some of the most well-known best opening lines in literature. You’ll be able to find many more online, but these are a few of my favourites.

  • Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury

“It was a pleasure to burn.”

  • Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

  • The Color Purple, by Alice Walker

“You better not ever tell nobody but God. It’d kill your mammy.”

  • The Hobbit, by J.R.R.Tolkien

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

Hopefully, this writer’s guide has helped to explain how to write a good first chapter. The most important thing is to just start writing, and work on these principles as you draft, and redraft, and redraft. Writing IS editing.

Looking for more advice on how to be a writer? Explore my featured blog posts in my guide for writers, novelists, and poets looking for a helping hand to the planning, plotting, drafting, editing, and publishing process.

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