6 Tips to Starting your First Chapter
That blank page sure is intimidating. And the blinking cursor only makes it worse! If starting your novel is to a point where it’s inhibiting your entire ability to write, then I say skip it. Try to start somewhere else—somewhere that excites you!
That said, you’re going to have to write the first chapter at some point. And since this is the chapter that will either draw your reader into the story or scare them away forever, you need to make it count.
To clarify, when you’re writing your first chapter, you don’t have to hit every single point on this list. One, maybe two points should be enough.
How to start your first chapter strong:
1. Start with the action.
You’ve heard this one before. Don’t start when your character wakes up in the morning, unless they’re waking up to a house on fire. Start with a bar fight. Start with your character breaking into a graveyard at 3 am and whining every step of the way (my start).
2. Start with emotion.
This can be in addition to action, or by itself. Arguably, it’s a bit harder to do well than that the action start, since we don’t know your characters yet. It’s hard to make a reader care when we haven’t built any emotional attachment.
What does your character want? How can you convey their swoons and wounds?
3. Start with your characters.
Who is introduced in the first chapter? A main character, certainly, and perhaps one of our supporting cast. But remember, this is a reader’s first impression. And first impressions REALLY MATTER.
Think about what is the most important qualities or goals that your character has, and find a way to work that into your first scene. It’s honestly a great chance to showcase your character’s most prominent character traits.
Here is your reading assignment. There are examples! First Impressions: The Secret to a Great Character Introduction.
4. Start with something we need to know.
And I don’t necessarily mean plot-wise. These details you include in chapter one, scene one, will set our basis for the rest of the book. Don’t start with a bar fight just for the heck of it—it shouldn’t be an arbitrary choice. If you choose a bar fight, have a reason for it.
Here’s an example: We’re in a bar because our Main Character George is getting drunk after work, as usual (imagine a guy pouting over his whiskey). Why is he drinking? Because he’s a cashier at a grocery store. And when someone bumps the stool where he’s sitting, Drunk George gets upset and attacks the guy.
What we learned: George hates his job and he doesn’t deal with his problems in a healthy way, which can lead to trouble. Depending on the way the bar fight goes, we might also learn if George is a Kung-Fu master or a wimp. We didn’t have to spell anything out. We learn what the problem is, a potential start to his character arc, and potentially one of his skills.
5. Start with your ending.
A common technique is to let your story come full circle. Thematically, perhaps, or with a similar dialogue/conversation.
Circular endings don’t always apply, of course, but if you know your ending, it might help you brainstorm an opening scene. Setting is a common example, since it can be a physical manifestation of a certain theme.
Here’s another example: Remember the “breaking into a graveyard at 3 am” opening? In the beginning, my main character is basically peer-pressured in there, and she’s complaining the whole way. That story ends in the same graveyard, except now my main character is a “master” of that location, in a sense. She’s no longer afraid and complaining, and she chooses that path of her own free will.
6. …Don’t start at all.
At least, not right away. Sometimes you won’t know what you need in your opening scene until you’re half way through or even finished with the entire story.
For one of my projects, I’ve rewritten the opening scene completely from scratch nine times. Different characters, locations, situations—completely new! The version I have now was written years apart from my original opening scene. Sometimes it takes a few tries to find an opening you’re happy with.
There are more ways to have your story take off, of course, but these are some of the more common ways. Read through some of your favorite books and really study how they start things off!
How do your WIPs start off, and do you think it’s worth keeping?
I really liked how you said an author could start at the end. As a human, and a writer, I am constantly in the past, constantly imagining scenarios where I can take someone to the “future.” My peers always tell me that if I can’t find a way to start at the beginning, to start at the end, because then I can find my beginning. That’s what Terry Brooks did anyway… So this is what I have to say on starting at the end: You’re telling a story, so why not make it that way? Start at the end but don’t tell your readers it’s the end. Show them a path well traveled.
Thank you for your thoughts! There are so many ways to write a novel’s first chapter, but starting at the end is one of my favorites. They come full circle and it just feels so rewarding to read when done right. Besides, a novel is just one chunk of time in a character’s life, so in a way “start” and “end” are just arbitrary markers we’ve placed on them. 🙂