First chapters are a beast, but they are a necessary component to writing a compelling story that engages readers from the first page. These four lessons from a first chapter critique are a great launching point for your own writing.
Lesson #1: Start with a clear understanding.
The first chapter has a very crucial purpose, which is to engage readers as quickly as possible with the book’s theme and hook. But it also needs to create tension and suspense and get the reader asking questions. That’s a mighty big bill!
The trick is to write your story in the proper sequence, so readers are never confused and clearly understand what’s happening (and are anxious to read more about the story!)
My formula for writing first chapters:
- Introduce the main character
- Provide the main character with a spotlight
- Hint at the life-changing dilemma
- Make sure readers know the time era
- Hint at the genre and themes
- Be sure to include tension and suspense
And by the end of the first chapter, your readers need to know what the story is about. Readers should also be curious about how the protagonist is going to accomplish their goal.
Lesson #2: It’s really about the first sentence…
While you do want your readers to ask questions, you don’t want your readers questioning what your book is about. That’s why the first sentence of the first chapter is important to give your reader a clear understanding of what the book is going to be about.
First off, let’s talk about a few examples from bestselling books:
“They shot the white girl first.” –PARADISE, by Toni Morrison
“Late in the winter of my seventeenth year, by mother decided I was depressed, presumably because I rarely left the house, spent quite a lot of time in bed, read the same book over and over, ate infrequently, and devoted quite a bit of my abundant free time to thinking about death.” –THE FAULT IN OUR STARS, by John Green
Both of these opening sentences hook the reader and invite them to ask the right questions. They also include a lot of tension, which is a key ingredient to a bestselling book.
Lesson #3: Readers need to care about your main character.
After the foundation of your story is built, you need to focus on getting your readers to care about your main character, because once your readers care about your main character, they’ll root for them.
The question you need to ask yourself when going back and rewriting your first chapter is “What can you offer readers early in the story to make readers care about your main character?”
All the things you noted in your character profile can wait until later chapters. Focus on writing the key thing that will get readers to care about your protagonist and their journey.
Lesson #4: Only give the necessary details to get the story rolling.
When readers pick up a new book and flip through the first few pages, all they want to know is what they need to know. They need to know who the story is about and what conflict will catapult the main character into their journey. Everything else is superfluous in the first chapter.
A first chapter critique will help you flush the unnecessary information from your first chapter.
The central conflict needs to be addressed in the opening chapter to properly hook the reader and give them a little information about what’s to come. This is one of the necessary bits, but you shouldn’t spend more than a single sentence here or there to hint at it.
You don’t need to spell it out for your reader. In fact, please don’t spell it out for your reader.
Huge blocks of exposition shouldn’t exist anywhere in your manuscript, and especially not in the first chapter. Use the first chapter like a first meeting with a new friend, where necessary tidbits are told and hinted at, and the “best friends” moments can wait until later.
A first chapter critique is a great way to get valuable insight about your story from a professional, especially if you’re not ready to dive straight in to a developmental edit. It helps you grasp whether or not you’re headed in the right direction.
Most books—and surely most first chapters—are rewritten a handful of times before publication. Don’t worry if you’re opening chapter isn’t perfect on the first go-around, because most first chapters aren’t.
The key to writing the first chapter is knowing what the reader needs to know and what can wait for a few extra pages.