Let’s get the most important piece of information out of the way first. You are not going to hook anyone with your first sentence, the first paragraph is more likely, but most probably it’s going to be the first few pages that catch the readers attention.
Now I’m not saying that you don’t have to write a good first sentence, but it’s not going to be the hook line sinker that a lot of writers make it out to be. It would be better to make sure that your first page starts strong, with impact and an interesting starting point!
With that being said, here is some advice for writing your first chapter:
“I’m not sure where to start.”
Generally, the best place to start is at the beginning. Wow, a shocking revelation, I know.
Your story should start where you plot begins, where does the action start? I was sitting in an English class a few years ago. The teacher was complaining about a student who submitted a very detailed 10-page story (way over the word limit) on how his wife gave birth. She said that he gave unnecessary details and started in the wrong place. One guy in the back of my class yelled out “where should he of started then?” and me… being the loudmouth that I am, I replied: “when she is popping the baby out!” The room burst into laughter, but I was correct.
No one wants to start a story with you packing your baby bag six months before the birth. They want to get to the good stuff, it’s called in medias res, in the middle of the action. Don’t start your story at a point where nothing is happening; begin at the beginning of the action.
A first chapter doesn’t have to show the conflict.
It does, however, have to show the problem. What is the character facing on a day to day basis, what could change to make that problem go away? An in media res beginning is perfectly suitable, but a slower introduction into the conflict is also a very interesting way to build a first chapter. There are multiple ways that you can go about this, so play around, read other first chapters. What do they include? Could you implement that in your story?
You have to show the reader the motivation for the inciting incident if your character doesn’t have a reason to pursue the plot point… it’s not going to be a believable story, character or even a coherent plot if you don’t set it up correctly.
Show me the life of your protagonist
This helps ground your character as someone who has a history before the story. We don’t have to go into their backstory or have an in-depth look at their minute by minute schedule, but we do need to see them having some sort of believable normal life. Show them chatting with a best friend, getting out of school, missing the bus, willing the clock to go faster at work. Do something to ground your protagonist as relatable, because every reader wants to see themselves in the hero.
Showing the hero before the main conflict of the story is introduced also allows room for character growth, who they were before should be different than who they are at the end. So introducing your reader to the character is vital to the character arc and the satisfaction rating of your novel.
Please, though, make it brief. I don’t need chapters of your hero’s day to day existence, just give me a flavour. I want to feel involved, represented… not bored.
I don’t need every blade of grass explained.
A good story injects world-building throughout the novel, not just in the first chapter. I don’t want to read a chapter dedicated to how the vines are growing on a building. You can tell me that later, or in other ways.
I don’t want copious amounts of details that aren’t relevant to the plot. I don’t want copious amounts of details that don’t enhance my ability to picture the place. “She swept the vines away from the doorway as she passed under it.” This sentence gives me enough information to figure out that the site is slightly overgrown.
These are some of the biggest mistakes that I see being made with first chapters, there is so much more that I could go into, but so long as you remember these simple rules, you’ll successfully write an interesting first draft, oh and on that. Please don’t spend too long editing your piece. Fine-tuning can be saved for a later draft. Just write the chapter and move on. Don’t get stuck!
As always, I cannot wait to see you on the bookshelf!