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How To Make Your First Chapter Exciting

Updated on February 6, 2015

But First, Tell Me This:

What's Your Favorite Way To Start a Novel?

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Does Your First Chapter Draw Readers In?

The Importance of the First Chapter

It's a well-known fact that a reader will decide whether to buy your book or not after browsing just the first five-hundred words (and sometimes even less). That's why you can find so many competitions around the first five hundred words--if you can hook us in with just two pages, you're doing great.

But hooking the reader in is a pretty vague idea. What does it mean? The first chapter is something I've struggled with for a long time. In one of my books, in the first draft of my first chapter the protagonist takes a stroll about town. We learn about him, the fact that he doesn't have any friends, his family life, his world (it's a historical novel), and the catalyst happened at the very end (the catalyst refers to what gets the story going.)

This technique, obviously, leads to a VERY boring chapter. 2500 words to get to something important will bore readers. When I received this feedback from my writing group, I rewrote the chapter in an opposite manner. The first scene opens on the protagonist getting beaten up. It's still not the catalyst, but it's a conflict that makes sense given the kind of character he is (very unpopular.) But such a fight scene is confusing because we don't know anything about him yet. So we don't care he's getting beaten up, and we feel disoriented by the suddenness of a brutal scene in which the characters are strangers.

Needless to say, the first chapter is important... and it's also incredibly difficult to write! But since my experience with that chapter, I've figured out how to get the right balance between boring exposition and dramatic confusion.

Are Your First 500 Words Exciting Enough?

Balancing Exposition and Conflict in the First 500 Words

There are two camps in novel-writing: the stick-to-the-classics people who say that you should put your exposition first, and follow with rising action, conflict, falling action, and denouement. It's the three-act structure you learned in class.

The other camp is the new one, those who say that exposition should be integrated throughout your novel, so as not to bore your readers.

While I agree more with the second camp, I do think that it's important to have some exposition very early on. You just need to stop confusing modern exposition with classic exposition: "Jen was a blue-eyed, black-haired seventeen-year-old who lived in New York, and loved hanging out with her friends." Yawn. Boring.

If you put conflict in your first chapter--which is a good idea--you should ask yourself, "Why would my readers care about this?" For example, in reality, a fight is dramatic. But in a novel, a fight only has dramatic potential if you can make us care. And if you haven't given enough details about the characters in the fight, no one will care. Little expository details will make us root for one character or another, and that's what makes us care, and which will also make your fight scene dramatic.

So if you decide to open the book with, to use this same example, a fight, you have a few options.

  • Begin in the very middle of the fight scene. But throughout, make sure to insert little descriptions of your main character, as well as the others (if they're important), and put emphasis on your character's actions. The fight scene shouldn't be too long--since readers tune out at 500 words, make your fight scene shorter, so that you can continue building on your character and the setting after, which will strengthen the first dramatic scene.
  • Begin with a compelling expository sentence preceding the fight, that quickly introduces us to the character and the danger he is facing. For instance: "John dreaded walking home from school that day. He'd had a bad feeling about the boys hanging by the street corner all week." This tells us John is a student, and it foreshadows a conflict between him and some neighborhood kids. We can immediately visualize the setting, the main character, and the antagonists, and we know there is a coming conflict.
  • Begin with a compelling expository sentence that comes after the fight, and which looks back on it. For example: "Feeling his bloody nose, John wondered why he hadn't taken the other route home from school." Again, this isn't obviously expository, but it tells us John is a schoolboy. It also hints at a past conflict, and arouses curiosity in the reader.

How Good Is Your First Line?

How To Write A Good First Line (With Examples)

I've already talked about the importance of the first line, and given some examples of first lines that balance exposition and conflict.

But there are still countless other exciting ways to start a novel.

  • One is to create an original voice. A voice that is poetic, humorous, or personal can draw readers in by breaking with tradition. Here is an example:

You don't know about me without you have read a book by the name ofThe Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain't no matter.

Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885)
  • You can also draw readers in with a short, mysterious sentence that leaves them wanting to know more. Here are two examples:

I am an invisible man. —Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)

Mother died today. —Albert Camus, The Stranger (1942; trans. Stuart Gilbert)

  • A third technique is to write an expository sentence; but make sure it's very original so that readers will want to read more of your style. Check out these examples:

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel. —William Gibson, Neuromancer (1984)

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness. —Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford (1830)

  • Write a first sentence that refers to the theme of your novel.

They shoot the white girl first. —Toni Morrison, Paradise (1998)

It was a pleasure to burn. —Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (1953)

Some Great Advice About How To Write A First Chapter

Recap

As you can see, the first chapter is probably the most important one in your book. And it's also the hardest one to write! At least, it is for a lot of people. But hopefully, with these tips, you're on your way to becoming a pro at first chapters.

The two magic words are: conflict and exposition. Too much exposition will bore your readers to tears (and they won't buy your book). Too much conflict, and neglecting exposition, will make your readers go: so what? Who cares if there's conflict, if I don't know enough about the characters to root for them?

Just remember as you get back to your novel-in-progress (or your novel-in-planning) the importance of not just the first chapter, but the first five hundred words, and most of all, the first line. If you can draw your reader in with a chapter full of both conflict and exposition, you're well on your way! If you can develop both conflict and exposition in the first five hundred words, you're doing great! And if your first line hints at both these vital things, what are you waiting for? Go query your agent now!

In the meantime, good luck... and keep writing!

Now Tell Me This:

What's your favorite kind of first line?

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