Imagine this: a literary agent reads your query letter and decides to check out the opening to your story. You’ve passed the first test (writing that query letter and getting their attention), and now it’s time for them to be bedazzled by your writing.
What the agent reads will influence their decision to request more or delete your e-mail after sending you a form letter.
The opening of your novel matters. There’s thousands upon thousands of books available, so you need to stand out in today’s competitive market.
But how you do go about starting a novel? Here’s seven tips on how to write a good first chapter.
1. Start with the action
The most important part of starting a novel is beginning with the action. Your characters should already be doing something, and it needs to be entertaining.
When you pick up a book at the store, you naturally check the opening to see what’s happening. If the beginning isn’t gripping, then you probably put the book down and move on to the next one.
You need to learn how to write a first chapter to hook and keep readers.
Actions such as arguing, trekking up the mountain, or trying on prom dresses are a few examples of “in the moment” beginnings. That means your characters shouldn’t be describing the weather, waking up for school, or reminiscing on their brooding past.
It’s important to learn how write a good first chapter that entertains your readers. Here’s a few ways you can start your novel with the action:
- Start with a pivotal moment. When you’re starting a novel, your beginning should be what changes your character’s life. It could be learning their crush is cheating, overhearing their parents getting a divorce, or getting lost in the woods with nothing but a small bag. Think of your first chapter as the exposition right before the inciting incident.
- Begin with something of interest. Don’t have your characters standing around talking to each other — they should be doing something that sets the scene that draws interest.
- Utilize the power of motion. Have your characters chopping down a tree, sneaking into his sister’s room, or copying the answers off of a friend’s test. Integrating action into your first chapter will help set the scene and tell the reader more about the characters.
Always start your novel with an interesting premise and a hook to go with it. After all, no one has time to wait until page 100 for things to “get good.”
2. Help Set the Location
When starting a novel, your characters are living somewhere. They live in a certain town in a certain time period, wear certain clothes, and have certain customs.
It doesn’t matter if your book is fictional or based on *insert current year*, you still need to know where the characters are when writing the first chapter.
And that’s why you need to think of your location when asking “how do I write a good first chapter?”
Your first lines of your novel introduce us to where we are. You want the readers to know if this is a fictional world or one that’s very similar to our own.
If we don’t know the setting, it’s hard to visualize and know where your characters are coming from.
Consider the opening lines to The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien:
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.
These opening lines present us with a fantasy world where a creature called a hobbit lives. Tolkien explains the kind of home hobbits live in, and that it’s a comfortable place. He sets the scene in this hook by subverting the reader’s expectations and explaining where we are.
Write the opening scene with your location in mind. This will help paint the picture for your readers and give them an overview of the novel’s world.
Here’s a few ways you can introduce readers to your location when starting a novel:
- Have the atmosphere affect the character. This is the “show, don’t tell” thing you hear all the time.
- For example, if your character lives in a perfect town that isn’t what it seems to be, show it. Don’t start off with “I live in a perfect town.” Have your character meet people who seem to be perfect, and how she doubts that she fits the “mold.”
- Give readers an understanding of how the world works. If you’re writing fiction, you want to set the rules early on in your beginning. Tell your reader if we’re in a dystopia, how magic works, or if unicorns chilling on the grass is a normal everyday thing for your characters. You don’t want your reader to be surprised by mentioning something later on.
- Have your character interact with the setting. People are always multitasking and interacting with what’s around them. When writing the first chapter, your main character should be fully integrated into your world.
Tell your reader what the location is and they’ll decide if they want to stay for the experience. After all, you want to make sure that your reader doesn’t feel mislead and stops reading halfway through.
3. Don’t be too long or too short
When you’re starting a novel, you don’t want to lose the reader’s interest by having the copy of the first paragraph go onto the second or even third page.
Instead, think about utilizing length and space to help the reader visualize what’s going on.
Think about it: people’s attention spans have shortened because of the internet, and that’s why many blog posts are now written in small chunks. Just look at how I’m delivering information in easy, bite-size paragraphs on this post.
Your paragraph strategy is important to think about when writing the first chapter. You want to give enough of details to hook your reader, but you don’t want to be so long-winded that they lose interest.
Here’s how to write a first chapter that grips readers in the first paragraph:
- Use language appropriate for your audience. If you’re writing Middle Grade fiction, the words your main character uses shouldn’t be fancy or over-the-top. Likewise, an investigator of a murder novel might be more sophisticated and have an elevated vocabulary.
- However, be cautious of using big words for the sake of it. If the language your using isn’t common anywhere, then it will only frustrate your audience. Choose appropriate words, but make sure you keep readability in mind.
- Stay within 1-6 sentences. The beginning of your novel is just that: the beginning. Keeping it to a few sentences that gets straight to the point can help you establish the setting and cut out the boring, unnecessary bits.
- Make sure it makes sense. Don’t choose to start in a place that’s confusing for the reader. You want to ease them into the story, and your opening paragraph needs to be that introduction.
Deliver quality writing that appeals to your target demographic. This can help you build your voice and establish your book when you’re starting a novel.
4. Avoid Heavy Backstory
One of the best tricks on how to write a good first chapter is leaving any and all backstory out of it.
Your beginning should intrigue the reader, inviting them to get to know who the character is and where we are.
It’s not interesting to begin with “when I was born…”
News flash: your readers don’t care about every little detail on page one. Sure, eventually you can pour your character’s backstory into the narrative, but the first chapter isn’t the place for it.
You want to lead your readers into the narrative with an interesting premise, characters, and world. Once you establish that, you can incorporate some backstory and memories of the main character.
Here’s a few ideas you can use to keep yourself from starting with backstory:
- Think about the present day. What does your character currently do on a day-to-day basis? Throw them into that natural setting and have us get to know them in the first chapter.
- Where does your character live? Have them interact with their home environment and the people they live with. This can help establish their relationships and give us an introduction to some of the major characters.
- What leads up to the “inciting incident?” Think about how you want to start off your story. This can help you find a natural starting point.
This list isn’t comprehensive, but you get the idea. Try finding a place where we can meet your character and their world!
5. Start the Story with the Main Character
Another key on starting a novel is beginning with the protagonist. You want readers to know who we’re rooting for while giving us information about who they are and what they wish to accomplish.
And that’s why it’s important to start with the main character (or one of the main characters if there’s a set of them).
Readers want to get to know who the novel is about, and what they’re after.
If you begin the story with a side character who dies or doesn’t come back later, we feel cheated as readers. We’re investing our time into the person we meet on page one, so they need to be one of the most important characters in the book.
Here’s a few more reasons you should start with the main character:
- The reader needs to connect to the main character. When we read a book, we’re getting into the head of the main character. We want to know what drives, motivates, and emotionally affects them. If the reader can’t immediately connect to your main character, then they aren’t gonna stick with them for the rest of the book.
- It’s important to establish their narrative voice. When we pick up a book, we’re going in the head of someone else. That’s why we need to learn how this character thinks and rationalizes situations.
- We’re interested in the protagonist. This is their story, and should be the main point of the book. We don’t care about Joe the street.
Don’t take starting a novel with the main character for granted. As readers, we want to immediately know what we’re getting, and so do literary agents.
6. Write a beginning you could summarize in one sentence
When starting a story, you’re setting the stage for your characters. That means it should be easy to follow and pretty self-contained.
Why? We don’t need everything at once in the beginning. There’s more chapters in this book, and the reader only needs an introduction in the beginning to what’s going on.
Think about it: when you gossip with your friends, you begin with the who, what, and were. You set the scene — such as “I was at the restaurant with Sally, Jane, and Beth. We ordered pizza, and everything seemed normal until we met a dude at the bar.”
Now if this was the start of a novel, the characters would be sitting in the restaurant as the plot unfolds. The first chapter could take place in the restaurant, while the next at the shopping mall when the drama really happens.
This beginning in itself could be summarized in a single sentence: “I went to a restaurant with my friends, and we met an odd man.” Your beginning should only take one sentence to describe as well.
Here’s some other ways of thinking about writing your novel’s first paragraph:
- Try thinking of your beginning as an “elevator pitch,” which is the concept where you’re standing in an elevator and you only have a short amount of time to grab someone’s attention. If you were going to describe just the beginning of your story, you need it to easily comprehensible to the other party. That means you should only start with one plot thread and plant the seeds for future ones.
- Think of the first scene like a TV show. In a television series, the characters begin on one set. You’re introduced to the characters, who they are, and what kind of world they live in. Your beginning should be short and easily summarized.
- Don’t clutter. We don’t need to know plot threads A, B, and C. Just start with the most important one.
Try writing the first few sentences of your novel with shortness in mind. You’ll have the opportunity to expand later, so choose a focus for now.
7. Give your character a goal
Another part to think about when starting your novel is determining what your character’s goal is. After all, your character should want something — whether it’s dating the girl, becoming a magician, or moving out of his parent’s house.
In order for your character to reach that goal, they need to start somewhere. And that somewhere if your beginning.
The main goal your character has should be a driving force in the story. We want to know what gets them out of bed in the morning. After all, a character without a goal is a flat character that will never change.
Here’s how you can give your character a goal in the first chapter:
- Tell us what’s in the way. Let us know what’s in the way of the main character from getting what they want. It could be another character, or the environment they live in.
- Be clear what your character’s goal is. Your character shouldn’t be wishy-washy about what they want. A more defined goal will help them embark on their journey and motivate them.
- What are the stakes. We need to know what happens if the character never achieves their dream. Do they remain in the life they detest, or do they have something bigger to lose?
Goals are what help keep your characters interesting, so make sure you spend time crafting this part of the story. It will payoff in later chapters when conflict arises around these goals.
Are You Ready To Begin Writing Your Novel?
Now that you’re equipped to begin writing your book, it’s time to get started. Pick up your laptop or a pencil and begin writing.
Let us know if you have any other tips for beginning your novel below.
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