In a previous blog post, we looked at why reader expectations are so important. In short, both the appearance and content of your book make promises to readers, and those promises need to be fulfilled for readers to have a satisfying experience with your story.
With this in mind, it’s important that your first chapter set up expectations properly. Readers have short attention spans, and once they open your book, you’ve got a few pages (sometimes fewer) to convince them that the story is worth spending hours on.
So, let’s look at how to write a strong first chapter and hook those readers.
There are six essential aspects to a first chapter:
1. Genre set-up
These six aspects need to be established by the end of the first chapter so readers know exactly what type of story they’re getting into.
1. Genre set-up
What genre is your story? This needs to be established as soon as possible to show readers that this is the type of book they’re interested in. If the story is fantasy, magic should show up in the first few pages. If it’s romance, there should be something romantic or lustful that shows the genre. If it’s a murder mystery, let there be murder!
Think about what readers expect from your genre, and make sure you start fulfilling those expectations right away. The rest of the first-chapter essentials will help you with this.
2. When and 3. Where
You can set up when and where together because they both relate to the story’s setting. What era is the story set in? What country? Is it in space? In a fantastical world full of giant mushrooms? Give readers an idea of the setting in the first chapter so they can get their bearings.
Setting and genre are closely related, so your setting details can show that your readers are in the right place.
Drop in a few details that help readers situate themselves in the opening scene. Where is the protagonist when the story begins? What time of day is it? What can the protagonist see, feel, smell, taste, and hear?
These setting details will make the scene more engaging and help set the tone for the rest of the story.
The first chapter needs to introduce the story’s protagonist. If you have more than one protagonist, the first chapter generally focuses on the main protagonist. In other words, who is the true hero of the story?
Readers don’t need to know everything about the protagonist from the first chapter, but the opening pages should set up who the story is following and why readers want to follow this character. More on that in a minute.
Look at The Fellowship of the Ring, for example. There are nine members in the group, but Frodo is the main protagonist. The first chapter focuses on Bilbo and Frodo, ending with Bilbo’s disappearance and Frodo saying farewell to Gandalf, which sets up Frodo for his grand adventure. Hobbits are at the heart of the story, so that’s where the story starts.
There are two important parts to what. First, what is going on in the first chapter? Whatever happens needs to be interesting enough to grasp readers’ attention, but also simple enough for readers to follow. If the first chapter is boring or confusing, readers will probably put down the book.
Second, what does the protagonist want? The first chapter needs to set up the protagonist’s goal, which also means setting up the main conflict. This goal might change throughout the story, but it will be the driving force for the start of the novel.
This is potentially the most important question you need to answer in the first chapter of your book: Why should readers continue reading? Why should they care about the protagonist?
The why hinges on the protagonist’s motivation.
Once you’ve established what the protagonist wants, you need to show why they want it. This gives readers something to connect to—it shows them why they’re rooting for the protagonist. It shows readers why they should care.
Now you know the first-chapter essentials: genre set-up, when, where, who, what, and why.
If you’re feeling lost with your first chapter, contact me and ask for a first-chapter assessment! I can look at your opening pages and go over the strengths and weaknesses of your story hook.
Happy writing, bookmartens!