The first chapter of a story has a very crucial purpose, and that purpose is to engage the readers as quickly as possible with the book’s theme and plot. Your book’s opening chapter should also add intrigue, tension, and suspense into the mix.
Your first chapter needs a “clear understanding”
At first glance, I’m sure you’re wondering what I mean by clear understanding, as most writers clearly understand their opening chapters like the back of their hand. But what I mean by clear understanding is that there are methods in how every book unfolds concerning plot and character development.
This clear understanding is especially important in the first chapter of your story.
The first chapter is the setup of the entire novel, so what you include in it can make or break the story. If you provide too much detail, it’s going to be hard for readers to follow along with clear understanding.
The “Compelling First Chapter” Formula
An introduction to your main character.
Your story is about your main character whose life is interrupted by a conflict that sends them on a journey they wouldn’t have otherwise taken.
It’s during that journey they face many conflicts and challenges that threaten to keep them from returning to their former life and they must complete a goal to defeat their enemy—the book’s antagonist—to regain control over their life.
The opening chapter focuses on your main character as they dip their toes into that story.
The introduction of a life-changing dilemma, which is also an introduction to the plot.
Coming up almost against your main character’s will, you will need to introduce your character’s life-changing dilemma. They might not even dive right in at this point, but the reader needs a hint at the story the main character is about to embark on.
Give only necessary details at the start of the story. All readers want to know is what they need I know, which is who the story is about and what conflict will launch the main character’s story.
The time era your book takes place in (present time, the future, the past).
Letting readers know in what time era their reading about will help them understand the characters and the world a little more. The same is true if you’re writing in a world unlike our own.
Drawing from times and bits of information the reader is already familiar with is something that draws them in. It’s something that helps them relate to the main character and helps them to clearly understand their motives.
A hint at the genre you’re writing in.
Genre is important to readers. Authors want the reader to enjoy their book, and the first step to doing that is adhering to the book’s genre and satisfying a reader’s craving. Neither of which you can do if you don’t lay the foundation of your story’s genre in the opening scene.
The age of your main character.
Your readers need to know how old your main character is. While you don’t need to give away specifics, a general age bracket or school grade will do.
Are they reading about someone in middle school or high school? Is the main character venturing into early adulthood or college? Or are they older still?
These are important questions to answer to give your readers a clear understanding of your characters, but remember, these aren’t things that necessarily need to be spelled out. While there’s a lot of information to introduce in the first chapter, it shouldn’t be a huge wall of “telling”.
Tension and suspense.
A conflict must be mentioned in the opening chapter, and tension and suspense must be broached in the opening paragraph to drum up reader curiosity. Or to entice readers to continue reading.
Conflict drives the story forward and gives your main character a reason to continue their journey. Oftentimes, it gives them a reason to start their journey in the first place. Conflict drives tension and suspense throughout your story until it climaxes during the Third Act.
But it all starts in the first paragraph of the first chapter. Those tendrils of conflict that are introduced have the entire story to blossom, so only adding the necessary information, and not all the details, is how you add tension and suspense to the opening scene of your story.
A main character “spotlight”.
When you open your first chapter with tension, you provide your main character with a “spotlight” and give them the opportunity to capture your reader’s attention.
What is a “main character spotlight”? A “main character spotlight” is anything that makes the main character not only stand out to readers but make readers curious enough to want to read more about the main character, and about their journey.
The opening scene is an author’s first chance to grab their reader’s attention and get them to care about your protagonist, which is exactly what you want. You want your readers curious about their journey, curious how they’ll overcome their obstacles, and
A “message” that tells readers what the story is about.
The rule of thumb is that an author should be able to tell what their story is about in twenty-five words or less. This “message” should be portrayed in your opening chapter to give readers a taste of your story.
Why does your main character need to launch into this New World? What is their purpose inside the novel? What must they achieve by the end of the book? Why is the main character important? What does your main character do or have that no one else in the story can provide? These are all questions you need to know to write the best opening chapter that you can.
The reason these things are important at the start of a book (and of the first chapter) is that they let readers know from the very start what the book is about, and once they have these details they can continue reading with clear understanding.
This formula gets your readers to care about the main character as quickly as possible because once you get readers to care about your main character, they’ll root for them. Readers will feel back when your main character feels bad. Readers will become sad when your main character does. Readers will get anxious when they’re in danger. And it keeps readers turning pages.
Ask Yourself: What can you offer readers in the first chapter to make readers care about your main character?
An example first chapter: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, by J. K. Rowling
In the first chapter, readers discover that an orphaned boy that sleeps each night under the staircase of his aunt and uncle’s home has been given a special invitation to attend a prestigious school of wizardry that’s known only in the wizarding world.
Do you see how that small tidbit of information has become a huge hook for readers?
Readers are instantly enthralled because they’re wondering why an orphan boy is being forced to sleep under a staircase. Why are his aunt and uncle treating him in such a terrible way? What happened to the boy’s parents? What would happen to this boy if he left his current lifestyle and situations behind? And, what is up with this school of wizardry?
In one chapter, you’re opening the onion of the story without telling all of the details that are better suited for future chapters.
Why is this important? The first chapter is better suited to introduce the plot and main character, more than answer an entire book’s worth of questions.
The trick to writing a great opening chapter is offering the story in the proper sequence so readers are never confused and clearly understand what’s happening. Leave them anxious and feed their curiosity to keep them reading.