I recently wrote the first chapter of a new project, and it got me thinking about all the things that a writer needs to include in chapter one of their book!
It can be tricky! There's a lot of information that you want to include to effectively set up your story, but it needs to be written in a way that hooks a reader and keeps them engaged.
With this in mind, here are 6 things that you should include in the first chapter of your book:
1. your main character!
In your first chapter, you need to introduce your main character! We don’t want (or need) an entire history of the character right away – so beware of the info dump – but we should get an indication of who they are, and what they want by the end of chapter one.
In chapter one, we can use character motivations to foreshadow the conflict, set up any skills / personality traits that our character might need to use further down the line, and we can make the emotional payoff of our character’s journey more impactful by showing who they were before they went on their journey.
In chapter one of The Hunger Games, among other things, we find out that Prim is important to Katniss, that Katniss is a good hunter, and we get a sense of her feelings about the world she’s living in. These are all integral to the plot, and they give us a good sense of who Katniss is so that we can connect with her.
2. an introduction to your world!
Where does your book take place? By the end of chapter one, we should get a sense of the location (and world) that your character is living in.
On the simplest level, we need to know the physical place the story is set in. Is it a real location? What city? Is it a fictional town?
We also want to hint at how the world works. Again, we don’t want to info dump here. But if there’s going to be magic in your world then you're going to want to drop a hint of that in the initial chapter. If there’s a fundamental rule / concept that your science fiction or high fantasy is built on, we should get an idea of that in the first chapter, too.
Lastly, it can be useful to foreshadow the location of the ‘fun and games’ part of your story. If you’re promising a paranormal academy in the blurb of your book, for example, the story doesn’t have to start in the academy – but you might want to drop in some hints in that first chapter, that that’s where your character will end up.
3. a sense of your rhythm, style, and voice!
Are you writing in first person? Third person? Past tense? Present tense? Is your book fast paced? A slow burner? Is it fun? Or is it dark? What does your main character’s voice sound like?
The first chapter is where you’re going to set the pacing, rhythm, and style for the rest of your book. It seems like an obvious thing to mention, but I think it’s important to think about these points while you’re crafting that first chapter. If your first chapter is really fast paced, but the rest is a lot slower, then you may be reeling in a reader that’s not going to stick around. Or if something really dark happens in chapter one, but then the book gets super silly, it could be jarring.
I’ve been in positions before where I’ve gotten this aspect completely wrong in my first chapter, and I’ve ended up having to start again because I’ve been writing with the wrong voice / tense / POV!
4. a conflict!
Your first chapter needs to introduce some kind of conflict.
You could introduce your main conflict by having your inciting incident take place in the first chapter. The inciting incident is basically the moment where everything changes for your character and they’re pushed into starting their journey toward the end of the book.
But, equally, you may want to spend slightly longer setting up your world and your characters before you send them on their journey (emphasis on slightly, because you do need the inciting incident to happen fairly soon!). In this instance, something interesting still needs to happen in that first chapter. We don’t want to just watch your characters go through the daily routine of a boring day. There needs to be some conflict involved, and some hint of what’s to come for the character.
In my urban fantasy, Devils Inc., the inciting incident doesn’t happen until chapter two when the main character signs away her soul to the Devil. But in chapter one this incident is foreshadowed, and the main character encounters a Bad (boy!) Omen.
5. a hook!
You need to hook your reader asap!
A large part of hooking your reader is going to depend on starting your story in the right place (I wrote a blog post all about that here). It’s also worth thinking carefully about the first line, or at least first paragraph, of your book – and how you're going to use it to entice your reader.
When I’m deciding how I’m going to hook my reader, I like to think about what I’m promising them in the blurb. Then, I figure out how I’m going to assure my reader that I’m going to deliver on that promise in the first few paragraphs.
6. Gain your reader's trust!
When a reader picks up our book, we’re asking them to trust us. We’re asking that they trust that we’ll take them on a satisfying journey, and we’ll deliver whatever we’ve promised them in the blurb.
All the points I’ve listed before this one, contribute to gaining the trust of the reader. If we’ve promised them an exciting new world, or a particular type of romance, a trope, a high stakes conflict, or an intriguing character in the blurb, by the end of the first chapter they should feel confident that we’re going to deliver on that promise if they stick with us for a bit longer.
In A Court of Thorns and Roses, for example, we don’t meet the Fae lord we’re promised in the blurb until we’re a few chapters in. By the end of chapter one, though, the world and the magic and the conflict have been hinted at enough that we’re confident that the writer will take us where we want to go!
Do you include these elements in your first chapters? Do you have any tips for writers when it comes to starting a story? Let me know in the comments!
LAUREN PALPHREYMAN is a writer based in London. She is the author of Cupid's Match, Devils Inc., and A Circus of Ink. She writes books full of magic and romance, and her serial fiction has accumulated over 70 million views online. Find her on Instagram @LaurenPalphreyman and on Twitter @LEPalphreyman.
Get your copy of Devils Inc. here