How to Write the Perfect First Chapter
Imagine this: you’ve come up with an amazing story, crafted some incredible characters, and even have a theme or two to really make your book resonate with your readers. Maybe you’ve even started building your author brand so you can launch your book with a bang when it’s done.
Then you open up a novel-writing tool like Dabble to help you out, you set your goals, open Chapter One and…
Nothing. Nada. Zilch.
You stare at the blank screen and all the planning you’ve done seems like it’s for nothing.
That’s because the first chapter is the hardest chapter to write. It does a ton of heavy lifting and you don’t have momentum on your side to help carry you through the scenes.
But worry not! If you’re looking for some help writing the perfect first chapter, you’ve come to the right place. This article will guide you through everything you need to know, including:
- How to start your chapter
- Establishing your fictional world
- Introducing characters and the story
- Some actionable tips and tricks for writing Chapter One
The one thing to keep in mind as we go: chill. The first chapter in a new work in progress (WIP) might seem daunting, but you’ll soon come to embrace the thrill of a new book rather than dread it.
Now let’s get started.
Exposition vs. In Media Res
Before we can get into the finer details of Chapter One, you need to make a decision: is your book going to open with exposition or in media res?
The term exposition might have a bad reputation, but we’re talking about a specific kind of exposition here in Chapter One. Also known as the ordinary world in story structures like the Hero’s Journey, starting a story with exposition means showing your reader how life for your characters currently looks.
Maybe they’re scavenging a ruined Union Station in the aftermath of the apocalypse. Maybe they’re going to work at a small-town newspaper. Maybe they’re gearing up for a training exercise in a Lockheed C-130 Hercules plane.
Whatever ordinary looks like for them, you want your reader to know about it so you can turn things upside down in a later chapter with the inciting incident.
If you open in media res, you’re opening with action. “In media res” literally means “in the midst of things,” so you don’t want to waste time establishing a character’s normal; that will come later.
Instead, you open your book with a character in the middle of something dynamic to grab your reader’s attention and show just how high the stakes are.
In media res openings could involve a detective chasing down a perp, a killer abducting their victim, or an adventurer securing some treasure.
Most of the time, you want the scene to tie into the plot later on, but it could also serve as a form of characterization for your protagonist or antagonist.
In media res works best for fast-paced novels like thrillers and urban fantasy. That doesn’t mean you can’t use it in romance or historical fiction, but first consider what impact you want the first chapter to have on your reader: drawing them into your world and characters (exposition) or gripping them from the get-go (inciting incident).
Set the Scene (Sort of)
No matter which opening you choose, your first chapter will set the scene in its own way. You want to start drip-feeding elements of your world and those who live in it with your first chapter.
But you don’t want to spend five pages regurgitating everything you dreamt up while worldbuilding. That’s called infodumping, and nobody likes that.
If we follow our character as they scavenge a post-apocalyptic Union Station, you wouldn’t open with two pages of inner monologue about the fall of society.
Instead, you’d mention the character’s favorite coffee shop stripped clean by looters, vegetation growing through cracks in the stone floor, and peeling advertisements that marketed luxuries of the old world.
If you’re opening in media res, maybe you’re describing the neon lights of a cyberpunk city, the flying cars whizzing by overhead, just before the killer kidnaps their victim.
It doesn’t take a lot of description in a first chapter for readers to understand the kind of setting you’ll be telling your story in. Keep it brief, but include a few elements to give them the foundation they need.
Introduce the Main Character
The first chapter is a great place to introduce your main character. While there are ways to start a book that don’t involve the protagonist or antagonist, you generally want to let the reader get to know your hero as soon as possible.
That’s because great stories hinge on the reader connecting with great characters. You want anyone picking up your book to root for the protagonist and hurt when they hurt. To do that, you want to use the first chapter to introduce your main character’s:
That doesn’t mean the first chapter should be packed to the brim with everything they’re great at and everything they’re terrible at, though.
Consider our Union Station scavenger. A good first chapter would include her goal (scavenging to provide for her group of survivors), her personality (maybe she volunteered for this expedition because she’s weary of hanging out in camp), a strength (the stairs are destroyed, so she climbs up to something that catches her eye), and a weakness (she intentionally avoids looking at an advertisement of a smiling couple).
Establish the Story
Of course, your opening chapter is the way you introduce a reader to your story. Whether your book begins in the middle of a larger plot (i.e., after a world-ending event) or right at the start (when the world is ending), your actual story begins in this chapter.
That’s why we want to make sure our character’s goal is clear and that our reader has a foundational understanding of the world our character is operating in.
After that, you want to either introduce or at least allude to the primary external conflict in your novel.
This could be a direct introduction to the antagonist or non-character enemy, like a corrupt government, societal pressure, an impending disaster, etc.
For our Union Station scavenger, she will find herself hiding or fleeing early at the arrival of armed militia who work for a local warlord. While that’s all the information we need to introduce the larger conflict, it does it effectively by adding to our worldbuilding tapestry while foreshadowing the coming complications that will be introduced by the warlord and their crew.
Tips for Writing Your First Chapter
With all that theory under our belt, we want to arm you all the practical tips and advice we can. Remember, the first chapter carries a lot of weight, but writing it doesn’t have to be scary.
So here are some tips for getting the most out of your first chapter.
Establish tone and POV - Your first chapter will set up some expectations for your reader, including the tone and perspective it’s told from. Is your narration dark and gritty? Or is it lighthearted and fun? You’ll also want to decide whether you’re using first- or third-person POV.
Choose a natural starting point - You could probably come up with ten different places to start your story: before a big event, after it, during any ol’ day, on the eve of a big fight, etc. But the best openings start with a scene that just “feels right.” This goes back to the decision between exposition and in media res, and which works best for the story you want to tell.
Don’t set the stakes too high - In all forms of storytelling, the stakes continually raise throughout the book. Things will get progressively more difficult for your main character before they get better. That means your first chapter, while exciting and engaging, shouldn’t have stakes that are higher than the rest of your story.
Use details expertly - One of the best ways to quickly immerse a reader into your story is to carefully and expertly use details in your first chapter. Just a few extra details (remember, we don’t want to infodump) can engross whoever is reading it. For the Union Station scavenger, I’d be sure to include two or three references to some real-world details in today’s Union Station to take the scene to the next level.
Give Chapter One an exciting mini plot - Every chapter, every scene, has their own mini plot. That’s just how these things work. But Chapter One, given how much work it’s doing, has to be exciting enough to force the reader onwards. This is especially true with in media res openings, but still holds true for exposition, too. Consider the beginning, middle, and end of your opening chapter and treat it like a short story within your larger novel.
Just do it - Truth be told, there will never be a perfect time to write that first chapter. Even seasoned writers still experience some hesitation when staring at a blank page. So understand that first drafts are meant to be revised and just go for it. Set a timer (I love writing sprints) and start typing until it goes off. Don’t worry if your words aren’t elegant or your action sequence is a bit stale. Those things can all be finished later.
Build some momentum - If all else fails, start writing a later chapter and use the momentum you create there to revisit Chapter One. For some reason, it’s easier to start writing after an introduction than it is to write the introduction itself, and the first chapter is basically a long, complex introduction to your book. So skip it for now if you’re really hitting a wall.
Read other opening chapters - “Read more” is my least favorite advice to give writers (because it’s what we say all the time and feels unoriginal), but it’s also some of the best advice to give. Grab a few books in your genre and read their first chapters. Study them, note what works for you and what doesn’t. Then use that knowledge when writing your own opening chapter.
Write an Amazing First Chapter (and Second, Third, etc.)
Unfortunately, there’s no secret sauce or foolproof way to make a first chapter just appear. You need to put in the work to write and perfect your book’s opening, and that only gets better with time.
Luckily, we have a metric ton of resources available to help you along your writing journey. If you’re looking to up your writing game, I’d suggest checking out:
- How many scenes are in a chapter?
- Our guide to character archetypes
- A character template with more than 100+ traits
- Story structure fundamentals
No, I’m not giving you homework to get done before you start your first chapter. In fact, don’t even use those links as an excuse to procrastinate.
But all of those links will provide you with a strong base for all your writing, especially your first chapter. And if that’s not enough, you can click here to get our free e-book, Let’s Write a Book, which helps you take your story idea to a completed first draft.
Now go write that first chapter!
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