by Inês Bridges
How to Improve Your First Chapter in Five Easy Steps
The First Chapter of a Book is often the most rewritten and reworked. Not only is the first chapter your calling card for your readers, but it is also your hook for literary agents and agents. The First Chapter of your book sets the standard for your writing and your story and sets the mood for the rest of the novel. Here are five important tips about writing first chapters
1 – Have a strong opening line
“They shoot the white girl first.” – Toni Morrison, Paradise
“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” – Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
It’s hard to write a strong opening line in your first draft. Most writers only gain true insight into what they are writing about and the tone they want to maintain long after they have finished their first draft. However, the opening line of your First Chapter is your hook. It needs to be strong and concise to engage the reader. It also has to follow your style and the tone of your novel. It can be tempting to start the First Chapter with a critical event or a shocking line but unless this fits in with the rest of the novel and the narrative style, it can be a big mistake. Readers are clever and they will sense insincerity within the first three pages, so unless you are able to follow through with your opening proposition, don’t do it.
2 – Drop into action
Another important tip about writing your First Chapter is to always start with an event. It may seem natural to start with setting the scene and the mood, describing the weather, the place, the main character. After all, that’s how we writers begin writing in our heads, we see the whole scene before it happens. Resist the urge or rather, write it all down and then delete everything up until the point where the action begins. Sometimes, this means deleting the first three chapters until you can start with an event. This event may not be detrimental for the whole narrative but it has to be the starting point. Your reader needs to be drawn in from the very first paragraph and you want your reader to begin asking the questions straight away instead of being just a plain receiver of information. Answer the WHAT?, hint at the WHO?, mention the WHERE? but leave the WHY? for much later in the chapter or even the novel. You don’t have to start the action so far that you have to spend the following chapters giving background information and the build-up to the opening action but you definitely want to provoke the reader immediately.
3 – Introduce your Main Character
Regardless of your narrator’s Point of View, you must introduce your characters in the First Chapter by showing them instead of telling your reader about them. If you are dropping your main character into action, which you should, you’re already describing them through their actions. Make them the centre of your first chapter. Your reader needs to know who they will be following. What kind of person are they? What are their desires and feelings? You want to use this First Chapter to set your main character up for greatness so don’t be afraid of using your starting action to make them uncomfortable or letting their true colours spill. This not only serves to introduce your Main Character but also the theme of your novel.
4 – Establish Conflict
The First Chapter has to show what the book is about but without telling the reader what the book is about. A good technique is to have the first chapter emulate the rest of the book. Make whatever happens in the novel on a great scale, throughout a wider space of time and several pages, happen on a small scale in the first chapter. Your reader needs to know what the book is about without being able to guess how it will unfold. If your book is not about solving murders, don’t start with a murder scene unless this is detrimental to the development of the plot. If your novel is a happy love story, feel free to start with a first date gone wrong scenario. What is important is that on the First Chapter, you show what your main character wants and how they are going about getting it, once you do this, feel free to spend the remaining 50 thousand words making sure your main character does not get what they want.
5 – Foreshadowing
Once you’ve established conflict and introduced your main character by dropping them into the action, use foreshadowing. Foreshadowing is a plot device in wish you give a warning or indication of what is going to happen in the future. As mentioned above, your First Chapter should be condensed metaphor for your whole plot and the best way of doing this is through foreshadowing. Put your main character in a situation that can make the reader anticipate what is going to happen. However, beware of falling into typical clichés. You don’t want your foreshadowing to be so obvious that the reader sees through it. It’s okay if your reader gets the hint of what’s going to happen but not how it’s going to happen, otherwise, they will lose motivation to keep reading.
These five tips on writing your First Chapter should set you up for greatness but be prepared for a lot of editing and rewriting. Drafting is an important part of writing and one that should be enjoyed as it is detrimental for the good writing of a great First Chapter.