Writing Chapter One – Tips

chapter-one-tips

I’ve wanted to write about first chapters for a while, primarily because they’re so important. After all, they’re the gateway to Chapter 2 and getting a reader to Chapter 2 is a fantastic idea.

I did some research and almost instantly the rule-resistant rebel in me kicked in. She’s the writer who scowls at formulas, who insists that form has to fit the story, not the other way around. She’s the reader who doesn’t want to read the same story over and over with different titles.

Well, I suppressed the first-born smarty-pants part of my personality and learned a few things.

First, I learned that there are actually a number of perfectly legitimate types of first chapters. Writer’s Digest has a great article by Jeff Gerke that describes 4 approaches with examples (summarized here):

  • The Prolog – A prolog is an episode that pertains to your story but does not include the hero (or includes the hero at a time well before the story proper begins, when he’s a child). It might not be “Chapter 1” per se, but it can serve as a legitimate opening—if it works.
  • The Hero Action Beginning – In a hero action beginning, the hero is onstage, doing something active and interesting related to the launching of the core story (it need not involve explosions and car chases, but it certainly can).
  • The In Medias Res Beginning (in the middle of things ) – With in medias res, you start at a point deep in the story, show a bit of activity to intrigue the reader, and then you hit the rewind button and spend some or all of the rest of the book catching up to that moment.
  • The Frame Device – The final major way of beginning your first chapter is to use a frame device. In this, your story is bookended on the front and back (and usually a few instances in the middle) by a story that is outside the main story. The primary tale is framed by this other story.

With that out of the way, I went in search of tips that apply to Chapter 1’s regardless of the book, tips that I could apply as I conceive of, write, and edit my stories. As usual, there are exceptions to these tips, and the list is not exhaustive.

Context: Backstory, Setting, and Detail

  • Avoid backstory. Include the bare minimum necessary and trickle the rest in as needed.
  • Don’t overdo setting. Give a smattering of strong, vibrant details to establish a sense of place and time. Then fill in the rest later as the story unfolds.
  • Connect the character to the setting so it isn’t just a backdrop. You might show how the character interacts with the setting.
  • There’s no need to skimp on details that serve the story. If your story is about snipers, give sniper details. Make sure they’re sharp and interesting. Avoid being vague. Write tight!

Structure: Theme, Mood, and Plot

  • Start the book as late in the story as you can. Does your story still work if you start with Chapter 2? If so, Cut chapter 1.
  • Write a great first line. A great first line grabs the reader’s interest.
  • The theme is the argument that the story is making. The first chapter should hint at theme.
  • Establish your mood. Ask yourself how you want the reader to feel while reading the book.
  • Think of every chapter as a short story with a mini-plot and conflict, especially Chapter 1.
  • Avoid telegraphing. Let the immediacy of the action carry the chapter to the end. Keep your pov tight.

 Character

  • Most writing experts will recommend introducing your protagonist in the first chapter. Some recommend introducing your antagonist as well. Avoid opening with other characters talking about the main character.
  • Make your reader care about your character. How is the character at risk?
  • Have your character engaged – active versus passive.
  • Not absolutely necessary, but dialog is a great way to reveal character, and conflict and manage pace.

Conflict

  • Have some sort of conflict – physical, emotional, or mental. Conflict disrupts the status quo. Conflict is drama and it’s interesting.
  • You don’t need to spell out the stakes for the entire book in chapter one, but hint at why the conflict matters.
  • A note on action: Rip-roaring action might be fun, but it’s best if the reader cares about the character. Without an investment in character and context, an action scene can feel shallow.

Hooks

  • End your first chapter and each chapter with a moment of mystery, an introduction of conflict, or a twist of the tale. It doesn’t have to be a huge one; it just needs to be intriguing enough to propel the reader forward.
  • Mystery. While action needs context, one of mystery’s strengths is that it makes the reader wait for context. It’s okay not to explain everything. At the same time, mystery does not equal confusion – find the balance.

Happy Writing!

145 thoughts on “Writing Chapter One – Tips

  1. […] via Writing Chapter One – Tips — Myths of the Mirror […]

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you so much for these very useful tips.. Never having written a book, yet with the idea mulling around my head and Debby whose reblog of this post is always prompting me to write.. 🙂
    I have saved in my browser and no doubt when that first chapter finally gets written, I will be sure to refer back to your pointers..
    Thank you so much.. 🙂 Sue

    Liked by 2 people

  3. […] Thanks for the Tips D  🙂     Source: Writing Chapter One – Tips […]

    Liked by 1 person

  4. […] With that out of the way, I went in search of tips that apply to Chapter 1’s regardless of the book, tips that I could apply as I conceive of, write, and edit my stories. As usual, there are exceptions to these tips, and the list is not exhaustive. Continue Reading . . . […]

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Steven Baird says:

    Great post, Diana. I know I spend an inordinate amount of time on the first chapter, and often the first paragraph, and usually to the point of obsession. It really is setting the table for the main course. It has to be bold, but not too revealing, and evoke strong curiosity from the reader… and, of course, the writer.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Adam says:

    It’s always interesting to see the different ways that people divide and categorize an aspect of writing. I haven’t given a lot of thought to beginnings in such a specific way. It’s interesting to consider. Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I haven’t either, but I’m always trying to get better at this craft. I was thinking about some of my favorite books and they do incorporate most of these tips. I’ll be paying more attention to them in the future. Have a great weekend and Happy Writing. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Adam says:

        I think that’s one of the wondrous things about art and creativity. Because there are no right answers, no clear answers, there are also no limits. There is always more to learn, more room for growth, and while that can be frustrating (I know some who like to master something with a sense of finality), I think there’s a certain comfort. No matter what happens, there are new discoveries waiting for us in our creative endeavors.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Excellent tips! The four “approaches” are interesting. I’ve seen each of these, of course, but very cool to have them here, listed, named, and described.
    I am a huge (huge) fan of firsts…first lines, first sentences, first paragraphs, first chapters. I have 3 or 4 posts on great first lines so this is extra awesome for me. 😀 Saving this post. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I liked seeing the 4 approaches spelled out too. It was interesting. Same with the checklist of tips, which is going to be useful. I haven’t paid much attention to first lines in the past, but feel now that I missed an opportunity. I will in the future. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Annika Perry says:

    Terrific advice, Diana and reading through these I can only nod in agreement! I can see this as the beginning of a novel writing class material…you could add that to your list of activities…in between everything else! 😀😃

    Liked by 1 person

    • As I was researching, Annika, it became clear that first chapters are the hardest and most revised of the bunch, including at the end when the story is written. I learned a few things and had a few things validated too (thank goodness). Ha ha. Happy Writing!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. KL Wagoner says:

    Great tips! I’ll keep your list on hand when creating and editing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the visit 🙂 I’m going to use it as a checklist myself. It seems first chapters need a definite second look at the end of writing (including all the other looks 🙂 ). Happy Writing!

      Like

  10. Reblogged this on Musings on Life & Experience and commented:
    Great advice on the main points of your story.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Steph McCoy says:

    Excellent tips Diana! I’ve not written a book but I have collected previous tips of yours and I can add these ones to the mix. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Ali Isaac says:

    I’d never really thought there were different types of chapter 1’s… they really are the hardest to write. I am never happy with my first chapter. Lol!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m still learning, Ali. While I was researching, it became fairly obvious that first chapters are the hardest and the most rewritten. I plan to use this as a checklist and hope it helps! Happy Writing.

      Like

  13. Excellent tips. I’m embarrassed to say it took me over a year and forty short stories to realize each chapter should be structured like a short. Ah, well. Your readers will be better informed. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • That was one of the tips that opened my eyes. I think I did that intuitively most of the time but certainly not all of the time. I can see it clearly in the book I’m reading now.

      Liked by 2 people

    • That’s right. In a way, each chapter has its own beginning, middle, and end — its own driving conflict. If you’ve never read it, Cathleen, I highly recommend Robert McKee’s Story, especially his chapters on scene design and value change. Essentially, McKee argues (as does Blake Snyder in Save the Cat!) that every scene (or sequence or chapter or whichever narrative unit you prefer) has a value at stake, which can be freedom or faith or truth or hope or whatever, and that that value is either positively or negatively charged at the top of the scene. By the end of the scene, however, the value has flipped to its opposite charge: If a character was hopeful at the top of a scene he’d get a job promotion (positively charged), and by the close he learns he’s been fired, now that value — hope — ends on a negative charge. (The reverse also applies.) Basically, if you have a scene/sequence/chapter without a value change, then its a “flat” chapter, and probably needs to be reconceived and rewritten.

      Liked by 3 people

      • Interesting, Sean. I haven’t heard it expressed in those terms but it makes sense.

        Liked by 1 person

        • McKee’s stuff is really dense and academic, but fascinating if you’re willing to submit to it. I think studying craft is important for exactly the reason you mentioned in your previous comment, Diana: So we don’t write intuitively — so we don’t rely on a “magic trick” we’ve instinctively invoked but don’t really understand. If a writer wants the stuff of reproducible success, he needs to take a disciplined approach to craft — or what McKee calls “writing from the inside out.”

          Liked by 2 people

          • The good part of learning this stuff and doing the work to apply it, in my experience, is that it slowly becomes second nature. We apply the principles as we write instead of as we edit. 😀 Something to look forward to.

            Like

  14. This is certainly a lot of food for thought, Diana. Great advice that is easy to follow without making it too complicated. Thanks for putting it together. It’s going to be pinned and shared.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Great post, Diana! Even though I know first lines matter, make the reader care about the protagonist right off the bat, tie protag w/ setting, etc, it’s nice to have the points all laid out together. Great reminder (I needed that 😀 )

    Liked by 1 person

  16. A.S. Akkalon says:

    Thanks for the very sensible advice, Diana. First chapters are hard, and it’s great to have a reminder of the things you’re aiming at.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. maryc25 says:

    Thanks very much for this, Diana. I’m trying to pluck up the courage to revisit one of my books and this will be most helpful.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. THANK YOU, Diana. As always, excellent tips. In both of my books, the first chapter got deleted by the 3rd draft. It seems as if we authors need to write that first chapter to get us started. But once we’ve ‘built’ the story and developed our characters and setting, that Chapter 1 is redundant. Fascinating!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Isn’t that interesting! Good for you, Pam. When I was researching and pulling this together, I read a quote something like “The story starts long before the book starts.” So knowing when to jump in as a writer is key. I think you’re right that often there’s a ramp up to the story that gets us going, but isn’t needed in the final draft. Thanks so much for sharing your experience. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  19. bpsenapati says:

    Great tips about chapter one, I’ll definitely follow your tips, thanks for sharing it

    Liked by 1 person

  20. dgkaye says:

    Fantastic introduction to first chapter writing Diana. Definitely one of the most rewritten chapters of all. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  21. Diana,

    It is so awesome to get a post on craft from you! As you know, I love talking shop with other writers!

    I’m currently working on the second draft of my manuscript, and what I noticed as I reread it in its entirety for the first time was that the initial few chapters were the roughest — partly because I wasn’t yet fully immersed in the world of the fiction, and partly because I was still getting comfortable with the form (having previously written screenplays, not prose), but mostly because the first chapters of a novel (like the first scenes of a script) are always the hardest to write because you have no narrative momentum to work with. It’s the same way you expend more energy getting a car up to speed than you do keeping it at speed. I’ve done a lot of work on that first section trying to get it up to snuff, but I’m going to have another look at it with these guidelines handy.

    The importance of getting Chapter One right cannot be overstated: Agents, editors, and readers in general will bail on something that doesn’t hook them early. And “hook” doesn’t have to mean opening with a visceral bang, à la a James Bond movie, but it does mean offering something — be it a character, a setting, a conflict, or even a theme — that compels the reader to keep turning pages. If a story doesn’t start well, it seldom gets better…

    Sean

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t think you’re alone, Sean. Most of the places I went to research said that Chapter One is the hardest and most revised part of a book. I think this is particularly true for writers who let the story lead versus working with an outline. Even though I write with an outline, I’m still looking at chapter one again and again. For me, theme often develops as a result of the story versus something I planned, and therefore is integrated later in the process.

      Lots of writer’s think of the “hook” as a cliffhanger, and it certainly can be very dramatic. But hooking a reader, in my opinion, is a lot more about making the reader care about the character and the character’s challenge whether he is hanging from a cliff or trying to get through an ordinary day without drinking.

      I love talking craft too. All of this is exciting, and I get a kick out of hearing and learning from others. Happy Wrting!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I outline extensively, as well. And though my novel didn’t deviate from my outline plot-wise, I did notice an unintended theme emerge (in addition to the intentional ones) as the manuscript developed, so part of revising those early chapters was layering in a stronger foundation for those thematics in the subtext (which was relatively easy to do once I’d recognized the theme and realized, “Oh, this is what the story is really about!”).

        Agreed: Hooking the reading is about making him/her identify with an empathetic protagonist. Not sympathetic, necessarily, but empathetic. There are lots of tools available to help one do this. I have reference books filled with lists of rooting-interest techniques that an old mentor provided for me; I still use them, all these years later!

        Liked by 1 person

        • I laughed when you mentioned realizing “Oh, this is what the story is really about.” That happens to me all the time! Ha ha.

          Liked by 1 person

          • That’s why I’m not a “pantser.” Far from a creative restriction, having an outline — a solid structural foundation — is what allows me to discover and explore unexpected moments of inspiration in the text (like character interactions) and subtext (like thematic motifs). Once you’ve got the tree put up straight, you can string it with lights and adorn it with ornaments to your heart’s content — with the security of knowing it won’t come crashing down into a heap!

            Liked by 1 person

            • I’m an outliner too, Sean, and find that there’s a great deal of creativity that happens as the characters and story flesh out. (I tend to use the skeleton metaphor). My characters know the goal and I know how I’m going to mess up their lives on the way to achieving it. We work together 🙂

              Liked by 1 person

  22. Great insight! For me that is! Thank you for sharing it!

    Liked by 1 person

  23. staceywilk says:

    Wonderful post, Diana. You’ve given some great tips in an easy to follow manner. The first chapter is often times the hardest the to write and should probably be written at the end.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks, Stacey. Many of the “experts” do point out that it is the most difficult chapter to write. I think pantsers must have a particularly hard time with it until a book is really taking shape. Somehow we all manage, though 🙂 Happy Writing!

      Liked by 1 person

  24. Heartafire says:

    Wonderful writing tips as always Diane. I rather love to read prologues! 🌺

    Liked by 1 person

  25. I reblogged this to our writing community and recommended if they find it helpful to Follow you here. This is the best distillation of 1st chapter suggestions I’ve come across while studying it intensively recently. Thanks for posting and sharing with us! -Sheri J. Kennedy (also sherijkennedyriverside)

    Liked by 1 person

  26. Good pointers Diana. I’ve been going over similar items as a checklist while revising the first chapter of my novel.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for checking out the ideas, Jason. There are a few in here that really stood out for me as “musts” and a few that felt more like “shoulds if the story allows.” I will most likely use them as a checklist as well. Happy Writing 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  27. Reblogged this on FreeValley Publishing and commented:
    I’ve been following D. Wallace Peach for a while now, and she and her site are just amazing for story, tips, and all around writing inspiration. Today’s post was so helpful, I decided to share…And if you find it helpful too, I would recommend, while you are there, a Follow of your own. -Sheri J Kennedy, FVP editor

    Liked by 1 person

  28. Sheron says:

    Great post. First chapters are so important. I do believe certain elements are necessary in a story. Thanks for lining them out for us.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for checking out the post, Sheron. I think a lot of these tips apply universally and others are more story-oriented. All worth keeping an eye on. 🙂 Happy Writing, my friend. ❤

      Like

  29. Roseylinn says:

    Good tips; and I agree that the form has to fit the story. I tend to give the book until the middle of chapter two to decide if I am going to read it or not. I count the prologue as chapter one.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ll go three chapters, Roseylinn. I feel like that gives me a good feel and prevents me from dropping a book that I might really like. Thanks for taking a look at the tips and Happy Writing 🙂

      Like

  30. I scowl at formulas too, Diana. However, I like your ideas here. They’re certainly comprehensive. Thanks for sharing this. Mega hugs!

    Liked by 1 person

  31. Reblogged this on disappearinginplainsight and commented:
    Discovered this excellent post on first chapter styles today over on D. Wallace Peach’s blog. Happy writing, indeed. I think I fall into the bookending chapter one category this time around. And since my blog posts these days are all about the writing process, I’m happy to share “Writing Chapter One”.

    Liked by 1 person

  32. The structure of a story/novel has always been interesting to me. Great post

    Liked by 1 person

  33. Erik says:

    I have this lifelong “rule” with books: once I start one, no matter how terrible it may be, I read the whole thing. I figure that A.) someone completed it, so that deserves some respect and B.) one can learn just as much about writing by considering what doesn’t work along with what does.

    It’s amazing to me how often I read books by “established writers” who don’t keep in mind the basics you’ve shared here (as well as a host of others, right to the end).

    I guess I’m saying that everyone needs these reminders, no matter where along the road as a writer. So thanks for sharing them.

    Liked by 2 people

  34. Phil Ryan says:

    Thank you, D 🙂 This is a wonderful post being both informative and generous. Having recently dispatched a chapter one I can smile in contentment that I got some things right 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Awesome, Phil. I don’t think it’s necessary to use all of these tips, especially when the story doesn’t call for them, but most seem pretty helpful. I’m so glad this made you smile with success! Happy Writing!

      Liked by 1 person

  35. tpolen says:

    Excellent advice, Diana! Sometimes the whole story may be in your head, but where to start can be a hard decision.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree. Though it’s good when the whole story is floating around somewhere. That helps in thinking about how to hint at plot and theme in the first chapter. I imagine pantsers have to go back to the first chapter and do a lot of editing. Thanks for the comment and Happy Writing. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  36. These are excellent, Diana. A question for you: Do you have a post that discusses how to add the next story in the series? I’m struggling with that. My first two came in a snap. This one is hiding. Thanks! I understand if you haven’t written on that topic–I haven’t either. Never entered my head until I tried to do it!

    Liked by 1 person

  37. philipparees says:

    Diana,
    Propitious post for embarking on a complete re-think of a book that has languished for ten years ( for want of a decision on the first chapter)

    BTW your link to the Writer’s Digest article did not work for me!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Oh. Thanks for letting me know about the link, Philippa. I just went in and reentered it, so hopefully it works now. Pulling this together made me rethink my first chapter, and others in the past that could have been better. I’ve been meaning to pay more attention to this for a while and the time was right for both of us. Thanks for the visit and Happy Writing. 😀

      Like

  38. Great advice here, thanks for taking the time to share it! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  39. Al Lane says:

    Great post, D. I’ve read whole craft books with less content!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks, Al. This is a bare bones overview, but I think anyone who’s been writing for a while doesn’t need much more detail. It just clicks. The one that really opened my eyes was approaching the chapter as a mini-story with a plot and conflict. Not that it needs a conclusion, but it needs an arc. Always something to learn with this writing stuff! Hope you’re well. Happy Writing.

      Liked by 2 people

  40. Ocean Bream says:

    I am bookmarking this Diana, for a thorough read over and over again. You share some excellent tips. I have been writing and rewriting chapter one for almost six months. I can’t seem to progress on to chapter two! This post points out some inherent writing flaws, and concisely advises on how to overcome them. Allowing your character to interact with the setting is so crucial, I never do that! See, all these points are markers of the best books I’ve read, you can SEE these tactics in the books, but it’s so much harder to actually incorporate them yourself. You have highlighted brilliantly how to do this. I love this post!

    Liked by 2 people

    • When I was pulling this together, Lenora, lots of “experts” report spending tons of time on chapter one – because it’s so hard to do. You’re not alone. Personally, I don’t think you have to incorporate ALL of the tips, but they do all contribute to the chapter’s strength. Have fun tackling that first chapter!

      Liked by 2 people

      • Ocean Bream says:

        See, I had no idea that was even a thing – to struggle with the first chapter. I certainly will have fun with it now (fingers crossed) – this has been brilliantly helpful 🙂 Happy writing!

        Liked by 2 people

  41. Jools says:

    Great advice here – makes me yearn to get back to writing again. Time does not permit just now, but soon… You inspire me.

    Liked by 2 people

  42. Beautiful advice to all the writers out there.

    Liked by 2 people

  43. Carrie Rubin says:

    Wonderful analysis! Enjoyed reading it. Beginnings can be tricky to get just right. I’m not sure I ever do, but I keep trying. 😊

    Liked by 3 people

    • I don’t hit all these “tips” either, Carrie. But I think that’s okay. Not all stories will conform and there has to an allowance for creativity. That said, I think it’s good to keep the tried and true conventions in mind. Happy Writing!

      Liked by 3 people

      • Erik says:

        There’s an old saying in writing: “You need to know the rules before you can break them.” I have to say, having read a bit of your writing now, Diana, you do an exemplary job of following and breaking rules in the right proportion.

        Liked by 2 people

        • Thanks, Eric. Would you believe it feels like a total crap shoot. Ha ha. I tend to try things first and then learn about them later. It leads to lots of rework – progress by failure seems to be my style. Thanks for stopping by my friend. I always love your comments 🙂

          Liked by 2 people

  44. Meg Sorick says:

    This is great advice! I rewrite my first chapters over and over again… But now that I’m aware of some of the flaws that had wormed their way into my own writing, I am also aware of how often best selling authors do the very things we are told not to do. I agree with you on the ‘rules’ for writing. Throw out the formulas and write something interesting!

    Liked by 2 people

  45. balroop2013 says:

    As a reader I would like to say that the first chapter should hold a promise of a good and captivating plot and most of the times I have seen this is accomplished but it tests your patience when you move a little further…if I can finish the first 70 – 100 pages willingly, then I would hold the book otherwise I can’t say! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • I give a book 3 chapters, Balroop, but I also agree that the first chapter has to intrigue me. It doesn’t always have to be the plot, but something about it needs to draw me in – could be a character, mystery, or even the quality of the writing. Thanks for the visit. Happy Writing 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  46. You share a wealth of info, here. I’ve always been a fan of “In Medias Res” myself. But I have to say, no matter the technique, if a book doesn’t grab me in the first chapter, I’m out. Always. Nice post, D.

    Liked by 2 people

  47. You were like a literary Yoda then, I was your young Jedi pupil. I was you know. 😉

    Liked by 2 people

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