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How to Write a Great First Chapter

Updated: Mar 4, 2022

One of the biggest issues novelists struggle with is how to begin their books. And that’s a valid concern, because experts will tell you readers decide within the first few sentences whether they'll put a book down or keep turning pages.

So Chapter 1 has a pretty heavy burden. In addition to capturing the reader's attention, your opening salvo will also establish your novel’s ‘voice,’ show your personal style, introduce characters and setting, hint at the looming conflict or struggle, and --- ideally --- create an emotional connection that compels readers to stay with your tale for the duration. That's a lot to accomplish in a few initial pages!

But of course authors meet this goal all the time --- and you can, too. Here's how to write a great first chapter:

1) Write the first three chapters. Once you’re done, set the project aside for a few days (or even weeks) and don't look at it at all.

2) Go back and edit your manuscript. When you’re satisfied you’ve improved it all you can, take another (shorter) break.

3) When you return this time, cut the entire first chapter. Yes, the ENTIRE first chapter. Gone. Former Chapter 2 now becomes new Chapter 1, former Chapter 3 becomes new Chapter 2.

4) Comb through the now-cut former Chapter 1 for any ABSOLUTELY vital information that your story can’t do without. Weave that info into the rest of your story, either as flashbacks, character development, conversation, etc.

5) If you feel you simply MUST use info from now-cut Chapter 1 at the very start of your novel, then condense it down to a 2 paragraph OR LESS ‘Prologue.’ Slice to the bone and include ONLY the fundamentals.

Voila! There you have it --- the perfect Chapter 1. The reason this works is because authors often feel they have to 'frontload' their novels with tons of detail, which leaves readers feeling overwhelmed and confused. By jumping right into the story, you're much more likely to grab readers' interest and get them onboard with the journey. Spooling out specifics a bit at a time rather than in a first chapter 'info dump' also builds suspense and heightens anticipation. That's a powerful way to hook readers. As the grand master Stephen King likes to remind us, "good books don't give up all their secrets at once," and he seems to know what he's talking about!

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