Just how important is the opening chapter of your novel? Traditionally published authors depend on it to gain the interest of agents and editors. For both indie authors or traditionally published authors, a strong opening chapter translates into sales (through book excerpts and previews), page views on services such as Kindle Unlimited, a larger author platform, and increased income.
The following tips for creating a strong opening chapter should help you whether you are writing or revising the opening to your book.
1. Hook Your Readers
If your book is to be successful, it is essential that your opening chapter be interesting and intriguing enough that your readers feel compelled to turn the page and continue the story. Opening chapters with an overabundance of narrative description, dull characters, or unessential backstory may leave your book unfinished—forgotten on an e-reader or gathering dust on a shelf.
Let’s say our main character is a woman named Charlie. Should the chapter start with Charlie brushing her teeth, taking a shower, and avoiding calls from bill collectors, or should it start with Charlie in the middle of trying to rob her neighborhood bank?
2. Give Your Opening Line Mystery
Your story should start out strong from the very first line. It should cause the reader to ask questions. For example, “Charlie pushed open the glass door to the bank, one hand shoved into her coat pocket, her fingers wrapped around the handle of her Smith & Wesson revolver.”
Immediately, the reader is asking questions: “Who is this?” “Is Charlie going to rob the bank?” “Is she a cop? Maybe a spy?”
Your readers are hooked. Now, keep it going.
3. Don’t Mislead Your Readers
It can be tempting to pull off #1 by using minor characters, or unrelated themes or plot devices in your opening chapter to hook readers before starting the main story in Chapter 2. Don’t do it. This is called the bait and switch, and it will leave your readers feeling betrayed and misled.
If the story is about Charlie, the opening chapter should be about her as well.
4. Establish Your Tone and Theme Early
Don’t hold back important details that let your readers know from the first chapter what your story is about. Establishing tone and theme in your opening chapter let your readers settle in and get ready for the escapades ahead. Being overly vague and mysterious will only annoy them.
For example, don’t fail to mention that your main character is a werewolf or a police detective (or both). Showing Charlie’s fangs and fur early on lets readers know that they are in for a paranormal adventure (your cover and book description should do this as well).
5. Don’t Give It All Away
On the other hand, don’t be so obvious in your opening about what is going to happen that your readers have no reason to continue. If you already let slip that your protagonist will lose this battle, what is their reason for continuing the story?
6. Don’t Drop a Ton of Backstory on Your Readers
In your opening, begin telling your story, not your character’s or setting’s history. Show readers an interesting character with an interesting dilemma. History can come later when it is needed to push the story forward. Although it can be tempting, you wouldn’t tell a new acquaintance your entire life story before becoming friends. You get to know each other one experience at a time, occasionally sharing histories when the situation is relevant. Let readers get to know your story and your characters in the same way.
The reader doesn’t need to know that Charlie got a B on her third-grade spelling test and it scarred her for life, at least not now. Wait until these details can serve to clue readers in to specific evens and decisions in the course of your character’s story.
7. Establish Your Setting, But Don’t Overdo It
Along the same lines as #5, let your readers know where they are and give them enough detail to keep things from getting confusing, but don’t bog them down in narrative detail.
Letting them know that Charlie is standing in the middle of the Bells Largo Bank lobby in the middle of the afternoon may be enough. A little more, just to set the scene, may be fine, but don’t get so enamored with the white marble floors and crown molding that you forget (and let the readers forget) what the story is about.
8. Start Your Opening Chapter in the Middle
It can be tempting to open your first chapter by leading the reader up to the story. But why not start them right in the story?
Instead of sharing the events leading up to Charlie robbing a bank, why not open with her wearing a ski mask and holding a gun on everyone’s favorite bank teller? Which opening would you prefer? The other details can and will come later.
9. Don’t Forget the Stakes
If you want readers to turn to Chapter 2, make sure that you establish your character’s stakes early on. Your protagonist should want something, something big and important (at least to her). Bad things will happen if she doesn’t get it. Make your readers care enough about what happens to turn those pages to find out.
In our bank robbery example, Charlie needs to successfully get the money and get out. If she doesn’t, she could be arrested or, worse, gunned down by police. If you just show her robbing the bank but give readers no idea why she is doing it and what will happen if she doesn’t, they may quickly become confused, annoyed, and maybe even frustrated.
10. Conflict Is Key
Don’t make it easy on your character. An inherent conflict for our Charlie is that she’s a police detective robbing a bank. What happens if a little old lady in the back, who turns out to be Charlie’s grandmother, suddenly says, “Charlie, darling, is that you?”
More Conflict = Higher Stakes = More Interest
11. End on a Cliffhanger
You’ve got your readers hooked. Now, you need to get them to turn the page. The art of writing a cliffhanger is a subtle one, however. You not only want to leave your readers hanging on edge of the cliff with your character, but you also want to give them a tiny sneak peek of what’s on the other side. Like with the opening line, you want your readers to have not only a strong emotional response to your chapter ending but also questions that they need answers to.
For example, with Charlie, you could end the chapter with the following:
“Charlie slid into the front seat and started the engine. As she hit the gas, she looked up at the rearview mirror and saw someone in her backseat.”
This definitely leaves the reader with some vague questions: “Who is in the car with Charlie?” “Has she been caught?” “Is someone going to rob her?”
Using the sneak-peek method, you might end the chapter this way instead:
“Charlie slid into the front seat and started the engine. As she hit the gas, she looked up at the rearview mirror and saw someone in her backseat. It was her partner, Detective Evan Jones.”
This sets readers down a whole different path of specific thought, ramping up their expectations and excitement. “Oh, no! What is her straight-laced partner doing in the backseat of her car? But wait, if he was going to arrest her, wouldn’t he have done it at the bank? …”
That little kernel of knowledge that you’ve given them creates new conflict, ups the stakes, and drives the reader on to the next chapter with more urgency.
What is your favorite tip or trick for creating a strong opening chapter?
“8 Ways to Write a 5-Star Chapter One,” Elizabeth Sims, Writer’s Digest
“4 Approaches for the First Chapter of Your Novel,” by Jeff Gerke, Writer’s Digest
“25 Things to Know about Writing the First Chapter of Your Novel,” by Chuck Wendig, Terrible Minds