I edit a plethora of first chapters. In fact, I edit a heck-ton more first chapters than full books because it's most affordable to pay for one edited chapter. Besides, most authors know that it’s the first chapter that matters more than any other. If an agent or publishing company hates the first chapter, they’re done reading the book. If they hate the fifteenth chapter but loved the previous ones, they’re going to keep reading.
That first chapter has all the power to sway readers, agents, and publishers to keep going.
First chapters need to tell your reader what kind of story they’re reading. They must also be good. Extremely good.
Here are some ways to accomplish this:
Set Proper Genre Expectations
I see this happen all the time. The book is a wild sci-fi, but it begins like a contemporary. It’s a romance, but the beginning feels like a horror. It’s fantasy, but no magic occurs in the first chapter.
While some books which don’t set proper expectations might succeed, most need to set the right tone from the very first page.
But, what if your protagonist doesn’t meet his or her lover til page 61? Or, what if your teenaged hero doesn’t develop superpowers till she gets bitten by a poisonous tree frog four chapters in? What then?
You can still set proper expectations with careful cues. Let's use some romance examples to understand what I mean.
The Selection Series, for instance, is rather heavy on romance, but the protagonist doesn’t meet her prince until several chapters in. She does, however, have a romantic relationship with someone else in the beginning. This tells the reader that it’s a romance. You might also do this by having the protagonist discuss his or her views on marriage and dating during the first scene.
You can also start or end earlier. Twilight doesn’t start with Bella meeting Edward, vying for love, or considering her future wedding. Instead, a short scene from later in the book is taken and inserted before the beginning. You see this happen a lot with movies; Tuck Everlasting (the movie) establishes that the story is fantasy and romance in the first two minutes by showing young Tuck at the grave of his love, remembering things that happened in their relationship decades prior.
It’s also important to establish the book’s rating level at the beginning. If the book is G-rated, don’t start with the most violent scene of the book just to capture attention. Likewise, if it gets heavy, don’t trick your readers. Let them know from the get-go.
Often, writers neglect to establish some vital points in the beginning regarding their leading character. I’ve read some first chapters where I don’t even know the protagonist’s name for several pages.
Most of the time, I’ll send a list of questions about a protagonist to a writer seeking aid with the first chapter. In the chapters I see, it is rare to have all of these questions answered. However, in most popular fiction on the market, you’ll generally find the answers.
These questions come from Creating Character Arcs by K.M Weiland:
Introduce your protagonist.
(Probably) reveal your protagonist’s name.
Indicate your protagonist’s gender, age, nationality, and possibly his occupation.
Indicate important physical characteristics.
Indicate his role in the story (i.e., that he is the protagonist).
Demonstrate the prevailing aspect of his personality.
Hook readers’ sympathy and/or their interest.
Show the protagonist’s scene goal.
Scene & Structure
I’m going to keep this short and simple. It’s important to establish a conflict from the get-go; it’s helpful for a reader or agent to have a sense of where the story is going. If you want, the first chapter can start with the inciting incident (an event that turns the protagonist’s life upside down), but it isn’t necessary. Just make sure the reader has a sense of direction.
It’s hard to explain what makes a first sentence, paragraph, or chapter hook marvelous. It could be wonderful because of the language or imagery. It might force you to ask a compelling question. It might tell you something fascinating about the character. Whatever it is, I recommend not keeping the first sentence or paragraph you write. Experiment by making a list of ten first sentences. Then, go with your favorite.
One thing I do know is that using a cliche is NOT a good hook. I’ve read so many first chapters where the protagonist wakes up in the beginning. It makes sense because waking up indicates a fresh, new start every day of our lives. But it’s old. (Of course, there are always exceptions. One award-winner started with the girl waking up floating on the ceiling. Very interesting.) I have also personally seen a lot of first chapters with hospital scenes. An acquiring editor of a different company remarked that she sees a lot of stories that begin in a forest. Therefore, avoiding any of the previous situations is probably smart.
Your first chapter is your living room. It’s the first thing people see when they open up your home and waltz right in. Be sure it makes an impact.
Make it powerful.
This is the first of two in a series about first chapters. This time, I wrote about what to say. Next time, I’ll talk about how to say it (making your beginning sound pretty).
What draws you into a first chapter? How have you made your first chapters more powerful?
Meet the writer:
Amy Michelle Carpenter is a developmental editor for Eschler Editing. Her blog articles appear in national and local blogs. Becoming Human, her debut novel, releases December 2020. Find out more about it here.
When do you find time to write?
NEVER. I have three kids three and under, so the only way that I get time to write is when I ask my husband to watch the kids for an hour or so. I'll go drive away in a parking lot somewhere and write.
What is something odd you researched for your book?
If there was a Subway in the pentagon. Groupon dates in Atlanta, Georgia. Old truck brands. Space conspiracy theories.
How do you feel about writing groups?
My writing group changed my life. They taught me so much, and they are also some of my favorite people I know. I feel extremely good about writing groups.