5 Steps to Writing a Killer First Chapter – How to Wow Readers

Writing the first chapter of your novel – a killer first chapter – isn’t as easy as it looks. These five steps to writing Chapter One will wow your readers and keep them riveted.

Before the tips, a quip:

“The first chapter must open with a bang, hit the ground running, take no prisoners, grab ‘em by the throat, leave ‘em begging for mercy yet praying for more.” ~ Elizabeth Guy





Elizabeth’s advice is simple. In the first chapter, you must grab your audience from the first word. Hook ‘em, and lead them into the second chapter and beyond. If you want to write more than Chapter One of your novel, read literary agent Donald Maas’ Writing the Breakout Novel.

And, check out this post from guest author Deanna Proach, who also wrote Writing Historical Fiction? How to Write a Book Set in the Past.

Want to Wow Readers? 5 Steps to Writing a Killer First Chapter

Why is writing the first chapter so daunting? Because we want to impress literary agents and editors so much that we worry about every little thing, from grammar to misrepresentation of the main character. We also worry that we may be over descriptive or not descriptive enough, or that there may be too much dialogue between characters.

These five tips give you the tools to write a first chapter that will set the stage for the rest of your novel.

Introduce the main character in the first paragraph

Readers will want to know about your main character the moment they start reading your book, so you will want to introduce him or her within the first paragraph – preferably in the first sentence. When introducing your main character, give him an action. Do not describe his physical appearance, what he likes to do or eat. That’s boring! Your reader won’t be “wowed” – he’ll put down your book before he finishes reading the first paragraph, much less the first chapter of your novel. And if a reader decides to shut the book, so will a literary agent.

Here is an example of a first chapter, from my book Day of Revenge.

Dusk is rapidly turning into night. Dark shadows loom over every corner of the parlor in the La Font manor. Emmanuel shudders in response to the cold shivers that run up and down his spine. Where is Samuel? He was supposed to return over two hours ago. Is it possible that he met Monsieur La Metz? Or did something terrible happen to him and I do not yet know about it? Emmanuel nervously twists a lock of his thick, wavy hair around his index finger. Nausea grips his stomach.

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As shown in this example, internal dialogue is one action that will draw the reader into the story and into the character’s mind.

Present a problem for your protagonist to wrestle with – yes, in Chapter One!

To write a killer first chapter of your novel, you need to present your main character with a problem that he or she must overcome. The problem could be a dilemma where the character is a lowly servant abused by a tyrannical lord and now he must find a way to escape without being caught. He is penniless and needs money if he is to survive on his own. The only way he can obtain money is if he steals coins from the oak chest in his master’s bed chamber. But, how is he going to accomplish this without being caught and, more importantly, without the master finding out that some of his money has disappeared? Realizing this, the servant must find another place where he can gain quick money and make his escape without being caught.

The problem in your first chapter must grab readers and drag them to the edge of the cliff, leaving them wanting more and feeling nothing but empathy for the protagonist-at-risk and contempt for the hateful antagonist. The protagonist’s problem must become evident within the first five pages if your novel – preferably the first – or literary agents and editors will stop reading.

That’s one of the best ways to write better fiction: providing problems for your characters to solve!

Hint at or describe the “back story” in your novel

Never underestimate the power of back story when writing your first chapter. Back story does have its place in a novel (though some literary agents and editors disagree). Back story is what allows for a deeper connection between readers and your main character. It provides readers with the most fundamental information about the main character — why he is the way he is. Back story is what gives your main character that platform for which to grow as the story moves forward.

Don’t open the first chapter with back story – you’ll confuse and bore any reader (and that’s not wowing your readers!). After you go through the first steps of writing Chapter One, give the reader a short, one or two page background information on your main character. Write a short back story only if it flows with the story, otherwise leave it for a later chapter.

Always write in the active voice

Active voice is what grabs your readers’ attention and keeps them engaged from cover to cover; it shouldn’t be reserved only for dialogue. You can make your narrative descriptive while writing in the active voice. Keep your use of adjectives to a minimum.

And, remember that too many adjectives will bog down the story. Here is an example from To be Maria, my yet-to-be-published novel:

Anya wakes, startled by the loud, repetitive beep of her alarm clock. In a daze, she reaches over her small night stand then slaps her hand on the stop button. She groans, her tired eyes half closed, while she slips out from underneath the old but comfortable downy blanket.

Use proper grammar – especially when writing your first chapter

Grammar is just as important to the story as is character and plot development. The best books on the market are those that have engaging stories, but are also well written. When you approach agents and editors, you want to look professional. In order to give off that appearance, you want to make sure that your first chapter–your entire manuscript–is well written and devoid of typos and grammatical errors.

Before querying literary agents and editors, have one or two people read over your manuscript. Another person – especially if that person is an editor by profession – will catch the mistakes you missed.

If you follow these five simple steps you will write a killer first chapter — one that will give your story a superb platform for which to build upon.

For more tips on writing a Chapter One that resonates with your readers, read How to Write a Chapter of a Book – What Authors Need to Know.

What do you think, fellow scribes – how do you wow your readers?

Deanna Proach is the author of two novels–’Day of Revenge’ (Inkwater Press) and To be Maria. Day of Revenge is a historical suspense set in revolutionary France and To be Maria is a contemporary YA suspense that is not yet published.

18 Reader Comments

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  1. TayTay says:

    I love your blog! It’s full of information and helped me a lot. I’m currently writing my first novel right now, and studying your tips at the same. Keep it up! You’re very lovely! x

  2. Jessica says:

    Thanks for the tips. I always struggle with the start of a writing project like this and once I get going things seem to flow freely but the beginning is the tough part. I agree that hinting at the back story is important to draw them in and ‘plant the seed’ for what is to come.

  3. This is a great offer, Deanna! Writing the first chapter – one that WOWS readers – may be the most important thing an author does. I’m glad you’re willing to help writers do it.

    Happy writing,
    Laurie

  4. I’m starting a course on novel writing in September 2011 if anyone is interested. If you are already writing a novel and need that extra help, I’d be willing to do an independent study based on the writing of that novel. For more info, feel free to contact me at deannaproach@gmail.com.

  5. @Panos–I do too. It would make the publishing road a much easier road to travel on–maybe anyway. @droidx–I’m glad this helps and I wish you much luck with your writing endeavors.

  6. droidx says:

    thank for share this useful tips. Really it help me much improving my writing skill.

  7. Panos says:

    To-the-point and well-written Deanna! Above all I believe introducing your protagonist in the first paragraph and presenting a problem for your main character to deal with, are the top two issues that many writers “forget” when writing the “killer” first chapter. I hope more people would take your advice…

  8. John says:

    Many professional bloggers are unfortunatly lacking proper grammar, I wish more people would listen to your advice.

  9. Thanks, Robin. I wish you the best of luck with your writing endeavors.

  10. Robin says:

    Such a great write up. :) Totally interesting and learned something new to apply in my blogging path. Looking forward for more.

    Cheers.

    Robin

  11. I think a great first chapter that is full of conflict is a great stepping-stone to the rest of the story. It is what fuels the story. And, yes, there must be plenty of conflict throughout the story or else the reader will get bored.

  12. Thanks for your thoughts, Mary Kate! I’m not a fiction writer, but have heard time and again how important conflict is in every chapter – not just your first.

    What’s a “pantser”? Must look that up…

  13. I think the most important point is kind of like that salesman’s motto always be closing, except in this case always be clashing. From the first page the reader should know the outline of the conflict, or the first conflict if there are multiple things going in, and where the MC’s stand. Personally I don’t storyboard anything either, as I am a pantser for the most part, but I drop hints at back story and develop it as I go along.

  14. Karen says:

    Revising my first chapter right now. All I’d add is hint at intriguing questions that readers will want to know the answers to (probably easier to do in the re-write) and finish with a real hook (especially if you envisage ever making your first chapter a free download to entice readers to buy the book!). all easier said than done of course, but I’m working on it.

  15. Thanks for your comment, Christian. Now that you know how to drop hints in your first chapter, you’re on your way to wowing readers and writing that killer first chapter :-)

  16. As someone who writes occasionally short stories, but has an inherent fear of extending that into something longer – this was a great resource. I’ve never really hinted at my “story board” in a first chapter – which has likely been a mistake.

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