How to Write a First Chapter
It can be tricky to write the first chapter of a novel. Where should you start? How important is backstory? In this article, we look at some of the factors that impact the quality of a first chapter.
November 12, 2021 · 4 Min Read
The first chapter of a novel needs to pique the reader’s interest and showcase the writer’s prose. The voice of the writing should connect with the reader as soon as possible—but presentation should not come at the cost of accessibility.
Establish the Protagonist's Likeability Early On
Readers like relatable protagonists that are kind. In screenwriting, this is usually established through a “save the cat” moment—an action very early on in the story that shows the protagonist’s empathy. As the name implies, this was traditionally done by showing how the protagonist saves a cat stuck in a tree. It is visual representation of why the audience should care about the protagonist. The same principle applies to novels. The reader needs to know as quickly as possible—preferably within the first two pages of chapter one—why they should be rooting for your hero. What about him is likable? What does he do that makes the reader think, “Wow, that’s a nice person!”?
You’ll have plenty of time to flesh out the character as the story progresses, but establishing this early connection with the reader is crucial. Novels with dark and overly cynical protagonists are difficult to enjoy. If the reader doesn’t care about the protagonist, then there’s no reason to be emotionally invested in the protagonist’s story.
Backstory is the lore, truths, or circumstances that indirectly inform a novel’s characters and plot. For example, the backstory of a criminal could be an abusive childhood. The backstory of a knight’s epic quest could be the injustices he has had to face at the hands of a wicked king. In short, it explains why things are unfolding the way they are. Backstory is crucial, but too much backstory too quickly can make a good read tedious. This is true no matter where you are in your novel; however, it can be especially grating when excessive backstory is delivered in the first chapter of a work.
Gripping openings rarely include detailed accounts of events prior to the opening of the novel. A page-long description of a kingdom’s history won’t make the proceeding knife fight more enthralling. An exposition-ladened discussion between rivals may orient the reader but it won’t add immediacy to the scene. There are exceptions, of course, but great first chapters are almost always structured around action—something happening, not something being discussed.
Leading on from this, try to avoid using a prologue. There is nothing inherently wrong with a prologue, of course—they can and do work when implemented properly. However, writers often use them to dump excessive information on the reader at the very beginning of a novel. It is almost always better to start at chapter one and to avoid as much backstory as your opening setting(s) will allow.
Introduce or Foreshadow a Problem
Remember, the first chapter of a book should provide forward momentum. Unless you are writing literary fiction—a character-driven story that prioritizes style over plot—the first chapter should include or foreshadow a problem. A problem is something that gives meaning to a story. For example: A man wants to become an astronaut. Problem: The man is blind.
Writers sometimes write first chapters that move sideways without clear direction. This is normally due to the novel-writing process; it usually takes time to hit your stride as you are writing a story. You may have notes or an outline prior to starting, but characters and events often change as you become more accustomed to the world you are creating. The first chapter, penned right at the beginning, may meander in comparison to the rest of the novel. What happens that sets events in motion? If it doesn’t take place in chapter one, can you at least allude to it somehow? Make sure you write your first chapter with the first crucial plot event in mind.
Keep the Word Count Manageable
In a way, the first chapter of a novel is a job application. The writer has to convince the reader that the novel is worth reading in its entirety. The first chapter’s premise, suspension of disbelief, prose, and other factors inform the reader of the book’s quality. However, one of the easier mistakes to make is related to word count. Avoid overly long first chapters—they can give the impression that a book lacks conciseness. Obviously, the length of your novel will influence what is an acceptable length for a chapter. That being said, for books targeting an adult audience, try to keep your first chapter below 3000 words. This should be enough to both convey your story’s premise and give the reader a snapshot of your prose. One of the main goals of a writer should be to maintain reader interest—something that is easier to do with shorter chapters.
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