Chapter one is where your reader decides if they’ll keep reading, or put your book down and move onto something else.
The Look Inside feature of Amazon makes the first chapter a crucial sales tool for self-published and ebook authors, and if you’re looking to be traditionally published, chapter one is often the make-or-break point for agents and publishers deciding whether to keep reading or to reject your book without bothering to find out what happens. Once it’s in the bookstore, the first page is often a key component of deciding whether or not to buy the book.
With so much riding on the first chapter, it’s essential that it is done well, otherwise, you’ll be left with a novel that is unsold and unread, regardless of the quality of your remaining chapters.
Make Your First Chapter a Success, So Buyers, Readers, and Publishers Can’t Put It Down
The best way to learn is through experience, but the good news is that this experience doesn’t have to be your own. Here, we’ll analyze three examples of chapters that work well and chapters that don’t, and we’ll identify what the authors achieved in these examples, so you know what to look for to make your own chapter one a hit.
The Essential Features of a Successful First Chapter
Before we analyze the three examples, let’s look at the three components a first chapter needs to have in order to be a success.
1. Create intrigue
This is the oh, I wonder what’s going to happen? component. If your reader isn’t intrigued and wanting to find out what’s going to happen, they’ll have no reason to keep reading to find out what happens.
There are as many ways to create intrigue as there are books, but standard examples include the discovery of a dead body in a detective novel, the introduction of two characters who hate each other in a romance, or the hint of some approaching danger in an adventure story.
2. Create a bond
In order for your reader to care about what’s going to happen, they need to care about your character(s). You can set up a thousand dead bodies, or present the most horrific approaching danger in your chapter one, but if the reader doesn’t care about the main character, the reader is not going to care enough to stick around to find out what happens to them.
As your book progresses your characters will develop in-depth as the reader spends more time with them and finds out more about them, but in chapter one, you need to give your reader a strong indication of the three-dimensionality and interesting personality of your character. Think of a few key clues you can drop that will let the reader know that your character is a complex, interesting, relatable person, to make the reader want to stick around.
3. Create an expectation
You want the reader to be wondering what is going to happen next, but not too much. You need to set the reader’s expectations as to what type of story they’re getting themselves into. If your novel is a murder mystery, don’t start your novel describing a chiseled, half-naked man. Chapter one should set the reader’s expectations as to the genre/type of novel you are writing, and you can achieve this using styling, characterization, setting, and other devices that are typical for your genre. You may think you want to surprise your reader, but if I’m a fan of adventure novels, and your chapter one tells me that this is what I’m getting, I’m going to be disappointed if it ends up being a horror story. Similarly, if your novel is an adventure story but your chapter one is written more like horror, I am likely to put the book down before I get to the thrilling adventure story further in.
Letting the reader know what to expect is also important from a sales perspective: the reason I’m happy to pay $6 for a box of chicken nuggets, but I’m hesitant to pay the same for your (objectively much more valuable) book, is because with the chicken nuggets I know what to expect and therefore I can spend my $6 with confidence. With a book, I don’t know in advance if I’m going to like it, or if I’m going to waste both my money and my time by reading it only to find out it’s not my thing. Setting my expectations around the type of book I have in my hands will make me more likely to persevere, as you’ve given me an indication that this book will be worth my time.
Example 1: Wool by Hugh Howey
Now that we know what to look for, let’s start analyzing some first chapters, to see how authors achieve a successful first chapter — and how they fail.
Hugh Howey, if you don’t know him, was one of the first people to do really well in self-publishing, back when it was in its infancy. The field of self-publishing is very different now than it was then, but nonetheless, chapter one of Wool is a classic example of a first chapter that checks all the boxes.
The chapter’s opening sentence is: “The children were playing while Holston climbed to his death; he could hear them squealing as only happy children do.”
The chapter then goes on to give us some incredibly interesting hints of the world that Holston lives in, as well as some hints as to his personality and life: how he hoped for children with his wife until she’d died, and ending with the statement that he wants to “go outside.” There is an incredible amount of characterization, intrigue, and drama, all in five short pages. By the time we reach the end of page five, we are deeply engrossed in Holston’s world and life, we’re desperate to learn what’s going on, and we know we’re in a dystopian-type story.
Example 2: Normal People by Sally Rooney
The first chapters have changed a lot since the books you may have read growing up were published. Then, it was common for a first chapter to start out slowly; with a description of glistening dewdrops on the grass, and a fresh moon shining over rows of poplar trees. After a couple of pages of description, the chapter would slowly move on to introducing us to the main character, the situation, and the stakes at hand. Although those first chapters still created a bond, intrigue, and expectations, they did it in a slow, gentle way, and the action took a while to unfold.
Now, however, the first chapters are all about hooking your reader from the first page, if not from the very first line. Rather than spending pages setting the scene, the job of a modern first chapter is to set the stakes as early as possible and to dive straight into the action.
Normal People is a good example of this; it starts with two people having a conversation, and only as the conversation goes on do we start to learn about the setting and context.
Example 3: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
This is an example of a first chapter done badly. To be clear, I love this book. I won’t tell you why so as not to reveal any spoilers, but this book is very, very good. The problem is that chapter one tells you nothing about how good this book is going to be — the chapter involves a boring, unlikeable character doing boring, everyday stuff. The intrigue and compelling nature of this character are not at all visible during chapter one. As I started reading this book, I thought this is one of those books that is all hype and no substance. The good news is that I persevered, and discovered the delights that were to be found further in.
You may want to use this example as proof that your first chapter does not need to be amazing. However, getting a novel published and turning it into a best-seller requires both skill (you need a great novel) and luck. Is the publisher going to persevere with your novel so they can see how great it is and beg to publish it? Is that reader going to read your novel to the end and then go on to tell all their friends about it? You can give luck a helping hand by making your first chapter awesome so that people are more likely to keep reading. You’ll still need some luck, but you won’t have to rely on it quite as much.
Does Your First Chapter Stack Up?
Have a look at chapter one of your current work in progress. Does it create intrigue? Does it allow the reader to form a bond with your main character? Does it set clear expectations as to the type of novel you are offering?
Getting chapter one right can be as difficult as writing the entire remainder of your novel, but once you get it right, the results are worth it.
This blog post was originally published here.