Keeping your readers turning the pages and recommending your book to their friends could lead to your book becoming a best-seller, so you’ll want to draw the reader in from the very first chapter. While white-page-itis might be overwhelming (staring at that empty page one), know you’re not the first person to write a first chapter. Learn the basic steps for writing a perfect first chapter from others who’ve done it successfully, and apply it to your story.
Decide on the Point of View
The two most common points of view are first person and third person. In first person, the main character of the story is doing the telling. They’ll use the pronouns I and me, telling the story from their own point of view. In third person, there’s a narrator who’s telling the story, so pronouns will be he and she. It’s author’s choice which point of view to use; some say third person is better, but it’s really up to the author and which point of view tells your story best. The key is to choose one or the other and stick with it throughout.
Decide on Past Tense or Present Tense
According to the website Novel Writing Help, past tense is the more common tense used in writing and is preferred because 1) past tense is invisible, and 2) past tense is more flexible.
(Pro tip; present tense is very difficult to maintain. Our brains are wired for storytelling in past tense, so many writers lapse into past tense when they’re trying to write in present tense.) Again, the key is to choose one and use it consistently throughout.
We learn from MasterClass.com’s How to Introduce Characters: 5 Tips for Writing Character Introductions that we should:
1) Don’t get bogged down in physical appearance. Focus on the character’s personality.
2) giving your characters memorable character traits or mannerisms early in the writing process can help you create distinct, instantly memorable characters.
3) Tell a backstory to give insight into why they are the way they are. There’s a big caveat to this: The backstory should be relevant to the character’s eventual story arc, focusing on formative events in the character’s life that support that arc. No one wants an info dump,
4) Introduce a character through action. Witnessing a character in action not only gives the reader a sense of their temperament, general disposition, and point of view, it also allows them to intermingle with other types of characters who can fill in other details.
5) Introduce your main character as soon as possible. The real reason that readers hook into a book, movie, or another piece of creative writing is that they emotionally connect with the protagonist.
Establish The Correct Tone
The Literary Terms and Poetry Glossary on Cliffsnotes.com defines tone as “the manner in which the author expresses his/her attitude.”
According to a blog by Anne R. Allan, setting the correct tone means, “You don’t want to start out a romantic comedy with a gruesome murder scene, or open a thriller with light, flirtatious banter. You want to immerse your reader in the book’s world from the opening paragraph.”
Should Your Story Have a Prologue?
Having a prologue is optional. Author Dan Brown said in his MasterClass that he uses a prologue to “introduce part of the stage. A prologue is a good trick to get the reader into the book before they even get started. I’m hooked and I’m not even on chapter one.”
Merriam-Webster describes tension as: A balance maintained in an artistic work between opposing forces or elements.
On the web page Creating Suspense in Fiction, Dave Hood shares insights from Sol Stein, author of Stein on Writing and How to Grow a Novel (among others).
Sol Stein identifies several situations that create suspense:
- A prospective danger to the character
- An actual or immediate danger to the character
- An unwanted confrontation
- A confrontation desired by one character and not another
- An old fear about to become a present reality
- A life crisis that requires immediate action
Keep in mind also, many writers go back and rewrite their first chapter after they’ve finished their book. Perhaps the characters or plot went off in a different direction than the writer originally intended, and now the first chapter doesn’t make much sense anymore. Or maybe the writer had an epiphany during writing a certain scene with ideas to make the first chapter even better. You’re using a word processor, typewriter, or maybe even pen and paper—not chisel and stone. You are allowed to make changes to your text once it’s written.
A good editor will be able to point out areas for improvement in your writing overall. And if you let them know you may have had some trouble with the first chapter in particular, they can pay special attention to that and give you ideas for incorporating the 38 story elements from Fictionary.co (for fiction writing, memoirs, historical fiction…pretty much anything told as a story) to help you become a better storyteller. Some of those story elements are:
- Defining the protagonist’s goal
- Scene opening type( dialogue, thought, description, or action)
- Scene closing type (same as above)
- Anchoring the scene in setting and time (leaving a reader adrift is never a good idea)
- Entry hook (grabbing the reader’s attention with a great scene hook will keep them reading the story)
- Exit hook (leave the reader wanting more—and they’ll start the next chapter!)
- Location: Choosing where a scene happens has a massive impact on how the scene plays out
- Sensory details:
- Sights to keep the “stage” interesting.
- Smells often bring out memories. This can be an interesting way to trigger a flashback or backstory.
- Sounds will help the reader “hear” the scene as it plays out.
- Tastes can be used for many elements, such as increasing tension or developing a character.
- Touch is a good way to get the reader to physically “feel” the story along with the characters.
Hopefully you’re feeling a lot more confident about writing the perfect first chapter to engage your readers, keep them turning the pages, and encourage them to recommend your book to their friends. Best-seller list, here we come!