25 Things To Know About Writing The First Chapter Of Your Novel

1. Every Book A Hook (And The First Chapter’s The Bait)

A reader walks into a bookstore. Spies an interesting book. What does she do? Picks it up. Flips to the first chapter before anything else. At least, that’s what I do. (Then I smell the book and rub it on my bare stomach in a circular motion and make mmmmmm noises.) Or, if I can find the first chapter online somewhere — Amazon, the author’s or publisher’s site, your Mom’s Myspace page — I’ll read it there. One way or another, I want to see that first chapter. Because that’s where you grab me by the balls or where you push me out the door. The first chapter is where you use me or lose me.

2. Fashionably Late To The Party

Bring the reader to the story as late you possibly can — we’re talking just before the flight leaves, just before the doors to the club are about to close, just before the shit’s gonna go down. Tension. Escalation. Right to the edge of understanding — no time to think, no time to worry, no time to ponder whether she wants to ride this ride or get off and go get a smoothie because too late, you’re mentally buckled in, motherfucker. The first chapter is the beginning of the book but it’s not the beginning of the whole story. (This is why origin stories are often the weakest iterations of the superhero tale.)

3. The Power Of A Kick-Ass Karate Chop Opening Line Kiyaaa!

A great first line is the collateral that grants the author a line of intellectual credit from the reader. The reader unconsciously commits: “That line was so damn good, I’m in for the next 50 pages.” I could probably do a whole “list of 25” on writing a strong opening line, but for now, I’ll say this: a good opening line is assertive. It’s lean and mean and cares nothing for fatty junk language or clumpy ten-gallon words. A good opening line is a promise, or a question, or an unproven idea. It says something interesting. It shows a shattered status quo. A good opening line is stone in our shoe that we cannot shake. Writing a killer first line to a novel is an art form in which there are a few masters and a great many apprentices.

4. The Gateway Drug To The Second Chapter

I’ve been to multiple Christopher Moore book talks, and each time he reveals something interesting about storytelling (and, occasionally, whale penises). At one such book talk — and this is me paraphrasing — he said something very interesting and a thing I’ve found true in my own reading experience: the more the reader reads, the more you can get them to read. Sounds obvious, maybe. But it goes like this: if you get them to read the first page, they’ll read to the second. If they can read to the first chapter, they’ll at least finish the second. If they read to page 10, they’ll go to 20, if they read to 40, they’ll stay to page 80, and so on and so forth. You’re hoping you can get them to the next breadcrumb, and as the novel’s story you space out the breadcrumbs — but early on, those first breadcrumbs (in the form of the first chapter) are in many ways the most important. Did I mention Christopher Moore knows a lot about whale penises?

5. Your Protagonist Has One Job: To Make Me Give A Fuck

If I get to the end of the first chapter and I don’t get a feel for your main character — if she and I are not connected via some gooey invisible psychic tether — I’m out. I don’t need to like her. I don’t need to know everything about her. But I damn sure need to care about her. Make me care! Crank up the volume knob on the give-a-fuck factor. Let me know who she is. Make me afraid for her. Speak to me of her quest. Whisper to me why her story matters. Give me that and I’ll follow her through the cankered bowels of Hell.

6. Give Her The Talking Stick

I want the character to talk. Give me dialogue. Dialogue is sugar. Dialogue is sweet. Dialogue is easy like Sunday morning. And dialogue is the fastest way to me getting to know the character. Look at it this way: when you meet a new person do you want to sit, watching them like Jane Goodall spying on a pair of rutting chimps from behind a duck blind? Or do you want to go up and have a conversation?

7. Conflict Is The Key That Unlocks A Reader’s Heart

Yeast thrives on sugar. Monkeys eat bananas. I guzzle gin-and-tonics. And conflict is what feeds the reader. Begin the book with conflict. Big, small, physical, emotional, whatever. Conflict disrupts the status quo. Conflict is drama. Conflict, above all else, is interesting. Your first chapter is not a straight horizontal line. It’s a jagged driveway leading up a dark mountainside — and the shadows are full of danger.

8. Steak’s On The Table

The reader will only keep reading if you provide them with an 8 oz porterhouse steak and — *checks notes* — oh. Ohhh. Right! Stakes. Stakes. Sorry. Let’s try this again: the conflict you introduce? It has to matter. We need to know the stakes — as in, what’s at play, here? What are the costs? What can be gained, what can be lost? Love? Money? One’s soul? Will someone die? Can someone be saved? Is there pie? The first chapter doesn’t demand that you spell out the stakes of the entire book in big blinky letters, but we do need a hint, a whiff of the meaty goodness that makes the conflict matter. And if all that fails, maybe try that “give the reader a steak” idea. Or pie. Did someone say I can have pie? I’ll have Key Lime, thanks.

9. Wuzza Wooza?

In the first chapter it’s essential to establish the where and the when of the story, just so the reader isn’t flailing around through time like a wine-sodden Doctor Who. But this also doesn’t mean hitting the reader over the head with it. You don’t need to spell it out if it’s fairly obvious, and you also don’t need to build paragraph wall after paragraph wall giving endless details to support the when and the where.

10. Mood Lighting

First impressions matter. Impressions are in many ways indelible — you can erase that thing you just wrote in pencil or tear up the page with the inky scribbles, but the soft wood of the table beneath still holds the impressions of what was written, and so it is that the first chapter is where the reader gets his first and perhaps strongest taste of mood. Make a concerted effort to ask, “What is the mood I want the reader to feel throughout this book? What first taste hits their emotional palate?” (Two words: PSYCHIC UMAMI. That is also the codeword that will get you into my super-secret super-sexy food-and-porn clubhouse.) That doesn’t mean you need to wring a sponge over their head and drown them in mood — you create mood with a few brushstrokes of strong color, not a hammer dipped in a bucket of clown paint.

11. Theme As Thesis

An academic paper needs a thesis — an assertion that the paper will then attempt to prove (“DONUTS ARE SUPERIOR TO MUFFINS. BEHOLD MY CONFECTIONERY DATA”). A story is very much like that. Every story is an argument. And the theme is the crystallization of that argument. Sometimes it’s plainly stated other times it lurks as subtext for the reader to suss out, but just the same, the theme of your story — the argument the tale is making — is critical. And just as the thesis of a paper goes right up front, so too must your theme be present in the first chapter.

12. The Mini-Arc Is Not Where All The Mini-Animals Go

Every story has a dramatic arc, right? The rise and fall of the tale. An inciting incident leads to rising tension which escalates and grows new conflict and the story pivots and then it reaches the narrative ejaculation and soon after demands a nap and a cookie. The first chapter is perhaps best when thought of as a microcosm of the macrocosm — the chapter should have its own rise and fall, its own conflict (which may become the larger conflict of the narrative). That’s not to say the first chapter concludes anything, but rather that you shouldn’t think of it solely as a ramp up but rather as a thing with a more complicated shape.

13. In Which I Contradict Popular Advice About Opening With Action

Opening with an action scene or sequence is tricky, and yet, that’s the advice you’ll get — “Open with action!” The problem with action is, action only works as a narrative driver when we have context for that action. Specifically, context for the characters involved in said action. Too many authors begin with, “Holy crap! Someone’s driving fast! And bullets! And there’s a robot-dragon chasing them! LAVA ERUPTION. And nano-bees! Aren’t you tense yet? Aren’t your genitals crawling up inside your body waiting for the resolution of this super-exciting exxxtreme action scene?” Not so much, no. Because I have no reason yet to care. Without depth of character and without context, an action scene is ultimately shallow and that’s how they often feel when leading off the first chapter. Now, if you can get us in there and make us care before throwing us into balls-to-the-wall action, fuck yeah.

14. Better To Lead With Mystery

You ever turn the television on and find a show you’ve never seen before but you catch like, 30 seconds of it and suddenly you’re hunkering down and watching the thing like you’re a long-time viewer? It’s the question that hooks you. “Wait, is Gary the secret father of Juniper’s baby? What does the symbol of the winged armadillo mean? WHO SHOT BOBO’S PONY?” (By the way, Who Shot Bobo’s Pony? is the phrase that destroys the universe. Do not say it aloud.) It’s mystery that grabs you. It’s the big swoop of the question mark that hooks you around the throat and forces you to sit. While action needs context, mystery doesn’t — in fact, one of mystery’s strengths is that it demands the reader wait for context.

15. Eschew Exposition, Bypass Backstory

The first chapter is not the place to tell us everything. Don’t be like a child overturning his bucket of toys — then it’s just a colorful clamor, an overindulgence of information. Exposition kills drama. Backstory is boring. Give us a reason to care about that stuff before you start droning on and on about it.

16. A Fine Balance Between Confusion, Mystery, And Illumination

It’s a tightrope walk, that first chapter. You want the reader drawn in by mystery but not eaten by the grue of confusion, and so you illuminate a little bit as you go — a flashlight beam on the wall or along the ground, just enough to keep them walking forward and not impaling themselves on a stalagmite.

17. Flung Off The Cliff

TV shows generally follow a multi-act structure, with each act punctuated (and separated) by commercial breaks. The trick to television is that it seems like a story-delivery medium that carries advertisements but really it’s an advertising medium that carries story: the networks need you to stay through the commercial break, not just to come back to the story but to sit through the advertisements. And the way they do this is often by ending each “act” with a cliffhanger of sorts — a moment of mystery, an introduction of conflict, a twist of the tale. Your eyes bulge and you offer a Scoobylicious “RUH ROH” and then sit down and wait (or, like me, you just fast forward on your DVR). This trick works at the end of the first chapter. A cliffhanger (mystery, conflict, twist) will help set the hook in the reader’s cheek.

18. K.I.T.

Keep it tight. Also, keep it short. Don’t go on and on and on. The first chapter is not a novel in and of itself.

19. Voice Like Bull

You never want your writing to feel limp and soggy like a leaf of lettuce that’s been sitting on the counter for days, but this is 1000% more true when it comes to the first chapter. Your voice in that chapter must be calm, confident, assertive — no wishy-washy language, no great big bloated passages, no slack-in-the-rope. Your voice must be fully present. All guns firing at once: the full brunt of your might used to sink the reader’s resistance to your writerly wiles. BADOOOOM. *splash*

20. On The Subject Of Prologues

The prevailing advice is, “Prologues can eat a sack of wombat cocks, and if you use one you will be ostracized and forced to eat dust and drink urine, you syphilitic charlatan.” Harsh, but there it is. Also, wrong — a prologue should never be an automatic, but hell, if you need one, you need one. Here’s how you know: if your prologue is better used as the first chapter, then it’s not a prologue. It’s a first chapter.

21. Fly Or Die, And Why

Since you’re a writer, you probably have bookshelves choked with novels. So, grab ten off the shelf. Read their opening chapters. Find out what works. Find out what sucks. What’s missing? What’s present?

22. Sometimes The First Chapter Is The Hardest To Write

Writing the first chapter can feel like you’re trying to artificially inseminate a stampeding mastodon with one hand duct taped to your leg. That’s okay. That’s normal. Do it and get through it.

23. More Time Under The Knife

What that ultimately means is, a first chapter may see more attention — writing, editing, rewriting, and rewriting, and then rewriting some more — than any other chapter (outside maybe the last). That’s okay. Take the time to get it right. It’s also okay if the “Chapter One” you end up with looks nothing like the “Chapter One” you started with many moons before.

24. An Emblem Of The Whole

You’ll notice a pattern in this list, and that pattern is: the first chapter serves as an emblem of the whole. It’s got to have a bit of everything. It needs to be representative of the story you’re telling — other chapters deeper in the fat layers and muscle tissue of the story may stray from this, but the first chapter can’t. It’s got to have all the key stuff: the main character, the motive, the conflict, the mood, the theme, the setting, the timeframe, mystery, movement, dialogue, pie. That’s why it’s so important — and so difficult — to get right. Because the first chapter, like the last chapter, must have it all.

25. For The Sake Of Sweet Saint Fuck, Don’t Be Boring

Above all else, don’t be boring. That’s the cardinal sin of storytelling. If you ignore most of the things on this list: fine. Don’t ignore this one. Be interesting. Engage the reader’s curiosity. The greatest crime a writer can commit is by telling a boring story with boring characters and boring circumstances: a trip to Dullsvile, a ticket to Staleopolis, an interminable journey to the heart of PLANET MONOTONOUS. Open big. Open strong. Open in a way that commands the reader’s interest. Fuck boring.


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218 comments

  • Chuck, if I may, I’d like to get your professional opinion on a couple of questions.

    For point # 12, what do you think of first chapters that show the protagonist undertaking some mission or task which shows off their motivations and skills, but it’s a mini arc that has little or nothing to do with the main plot? An example of what I’m talking about would be Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark where Indi’s trying to acquire that golden idol from the ancient death temple. It’s emblematic of the rest of the story, but doesn’t spoil how the larger arc will play out.

    And what about a 1st chapter where the protagonist isn’t even seen? Examples: when we see two characters talking about the protagonist, or the beginning of Star Wars IV–the rebels are fleeing the Empire and not doing such a good job of it, we don’t see Luke until a scene or two in.

    Are these approaches that work better for movies, or do you think they could work just as effectively for novels?

    • @Mild —

      That “mini-mission” thing can totally work — actually, come to think of it, it’s exactly what I did in BLACKBIRDS.

      On the second point — anything can work, really, anything at all provided it’s in the hands of an accomplished storyteller, but I think that one is trickier in a novel. Film gives you more to “do” in terms of sensory information, but novels live or die by just the words on the page.

      — c.

  • Great list as always! Though it is my biggest peeve when the first chapter is so much stronger than the rest of them, or it’s info-dump central. I think every author needs to remember to keep it mysterious, at least a little bit. Even if it’s something small like ‘how did she get a sunburnt in the middle of December?’ or ‘How can he afford such fancy suits if he is on minimum wage?’
    Ok, those examples aren’t the best, but weaving little questions in can help aid character development as well as that of the plot.

    @Mild – I think it only really works in films, because you go in there knowing to a certain extent what the conflict/ driving force of the story is, what with seeing trailers and advertisements and whatnot. You go in there knowing who you’re supposed to root for. It can be done in novels really well, but in my experience, it can be confusing (I hate multi-pov stories because I like to focus on one or two characters). But that could just be me 🙂

    • @Francis —

      Dialogue with the reader (first person POV) can totally work in that regard.

      And I don’t think a first chapter absolutely requires dialogue, but I’ve read several that didn’t have it and found they’d be much improved if they just let the protagonist talk a little bit.

      — c.

  • Great list, as always

    Only point of contention is #6. Unless you include dialogue with the reader (for instance, a first person narrator who is chatty with the reader). I think preference or not for lots of dialogue is a personal thing – I don’t mind if there’s none as long as what is happening (or the narrator’s voice) is interesting. A fair few of my fave books don’t have much dialogue to start with, but they do hook me. No dialogue is preferable to lots of dialogue that does nowt for the story/characters.

    So I think that one’s an ‘it depends’ kind of thing.

  • Excellent advice.

    Also, the “flailing through time like a wine-sodden Doctor Who” line nearly made my coffee come out of my nose. I really should know not to drink anything when reading your blog. It’s dangerous.

  • Personally, when I pick up a new book in a bookstore I flip to a random bit, then to another random bit, and make up my mind from there. And I couldn’t care less about the first line. 😛

    The first page, on the other hand . . . now THAT matters.

  • Well done as always, good sir, though I disagree with Moore’s take on what will keep a reader reading (assuming I understood the point well enough through the paraphrasing).

    For me, whether or not I keep reading isn’t a matter of momentum (as Moore seems to imply), but just plain ol’ good writing. I’ve long-since gotten to the point where I don’t care if the mystery isn’t solved or I don’t find out if good triumphs over evil if the writing’s not good enough to keep me engaged. Sorry, authorman, but this flub, or that sidestep from the rules you created in your universe, or suddenly lazy writing, have slammed the brakes on the story for me. Too many other books to read, too little time.

    My slow-ass reading speed contributes to that stance, I’m sure. I spend way too long getting through (even good) books, so my reading time’s perhaps more precious to me than it may be for people who blaze through them. No time to waste sorting through big enough faux pas to get back to it perhaps being enjoyable again.

    Bottom line: keep me engrossed or I’ll stop on a dime and I’m out.

    Harsh but fair, I think.

    • @Bill —

      My brain would be good eats, provided you don’t mind fatty gristly bits. And weird parasitic cysts.

      And your post on prologues is elegant and perfect. I should learn to write kick-ass one-line blog posts. DAMN YOU.

      — c.

  • Of everything here, nothing speaks truer than #22. It’s probably why it’s taking so long to just get through it. It’s so difficult to introduce characters, setting, voice, mood, plot, stakes, and oh be concise and brilliant all at once.

    But the things worth doing are the hardest things to do.

  • All good points, but #17 was an interesting observation – “The trick to television is that it seems like a story-delivery medium that carries advertisements but really it’s an advertising medium that carries story: the networks need you to stay through the commercial break, not just to come back to the story but to sit through the advertisements.”

    Does this mean there is a difference in writing for public television, without breaks for ads? Should you still pretend and build in a 20(?) minute cycle for your scenes?

  • I’m wondering about #13. If you’re writing first person, or with a 3rd person who lives in the protaganist’s pocket, I think you can open with action, especially if you’re focusing more on what the person is thinking/feeling while they’re fighting/running/riding a stampeding elephant than what they’re actually doing. But I agree, a blow-by-blow of a fight scene when I don’t know who’s involved doesn’t really appeal to me as a reader.

  • Fantastic list. I love the number 25 though… When I’m looking for something new to read – this will do it for me, no matter what. Keep it interesting. Just like Chuck Wendig.

  • I believe if you can have the reader give a fuck, you can basically get away witn all else. That’s not what I do, but I’ve read books that provide you with a likeable main character and keep you reading on despite how badly it’s written based solely on the fact that you want to, no you MUST Know wether they live or die. Check out some Magic: The Gathering books to see what I mean.

  • Thanks, Chuck, I think this is one of the most helpful of these lists that you have done. Not as funny as most, but very helpful.

    In particular, I find the bit about mystery to be intriguing.

    I am tempted to ask you what you think of the two opening lines I have puttering around in my head but in lieu of that, I will ask if you think the second chapter can often be a second first chapter, if that makes sense.

    In the novel I am trying to write, there are two distinct story lines centered around two characters and they don’t meet until the climax of the book because both characters have to grow a bit before their interactions will be all that interesting.

    As it is, the intention is to introduce one of them in chapter one and the second one in chapter two. There is limited interaction between the two throughout the story and each story line would probably stand on it’s own save for the fact that getting them together is the point of the whole thing.

    In a case like that it seems to me that it makes sense to treat both introductory chapters as first chapters.

    And, a follow up if I may. In a case like that, would it make sense to make the first sentences similar? The idea being that if someone is drawn into the first character and his situation and you abruptly switch them to a completely different character in a completely different situation, a similarity of invitation might soften the abruptness and emphasize the if-you-liked-that-then-trust-me-you’ll-like-this factor.

  • As a reader, not a writer, and with nothing short of pure fangirl adoration, I submit Lilith Saintcrow’s Dante and Jill novels as superlative, paradigmatic illustrations of how to do #9 and #13 right, respectively.

  • Mike – I don’t know about 20 minutes, but a lot of the books I’ve enjoyed the least have had chapters that are longer than 20 pages. Books I like and comment positively about the pacing tend to have 8 – 18. That may well be because of why I’m paying attention to chapter length; I like to end my reading at the end of a chapter, so I’ll often flip ahead to see how many pages I have to go on books that are boring me, whereas books I’m enjoying, I’ll flip ahead and go, “Oh, it’s only 12 pages. I can get 12 fewer minutes of sleep to find out what happens next!”

    I don’t think there’s a formula for how many pages you need per chapter, but I do think bite-sized chunks keep things moving along at a better clip.

    As for the post, itself: it’s a good one. I’ll make sure to point people at it.

    In my writing group, we often end up chopping the first few chapters of our works-in-progress. Turns out an awful lot of us like to use the first couple of chapters to figure out the characters and world and the rules, and don’t get into the story until chapter 2 or 3.

    So, when one of us with the early-start problems is about to submit, we take a good, long look at those first couple of chapters, first, and lop them off if they don’t need to be there.

  • Chuck, what about a first chapter that’s out of order chronologically? Like the story, told linearly, builds slowly, but the first chapter is from maybe halfway through, when there’s some actual conflict and mystery, then the second chapter jumps back in time and the remaining chapters just follow chronologically from chapter 2. Is this a viable way to hook a reader or just a cheap ploy? Or is it a sign that everything (chronologically) before chapter 1 should be omitted with critical details filled in along the way (although this sounds like it’s risking a major infodump)?

    • @Phil —

      I think that can work provided… well, provided it works. 🙂

      But yes, I think starting very late and flashing back is a totally viable way to tell a story.

      — c.

  • You know, initially I saw this post and thought, “FML.” But when I read it…I felt good. I did everything in my first full length novel’s first chapter that you listed here. Thank you sir 🙂 I mean, not to be an arrogant d-bag – my novel has sold like 30 copies altogether – but to know I did good feels good 🙂

  • Good list! I definitely think that the first chapter is by far the hardest to write. And in a lot of cases, it seems that the first chapter could be cut out completely in some instances and the story itself ends up coming out even better than before. But, again, that hook is important and leading into it with crazy action makes the writer seem a little unconfident of his or her writing. A hint of action, a hint of surroundings and a hint of what is to come, that’s my motto. Good post!

  • Very helpful list as I need to tighten my chapter one.

    One small criticism, though, The Doctor doesn’t like wine. I think he prefers gin and tonic laced with cyanide. 🙂

  • “so the reader isn’t flailing around through time like a wine-sodden Doctor Who.”

    Gods bless you, Chuck Wendig. Not only did this make me laugh so hard I snorted, you’ve inspired me to write a short story about drunk time traveling.

  • “so the reader isn’t flailing around through time like a wine-sodden Doctor Who.”

    Just an FYI: “Doctor Who” is the name of the show. The character’s name is The Doctor.

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