What Makes a Great First Chapter? (We’re talking fiction right now.)

The elusive great first chapter! Everyone writer wants to create one and too many think they already did. If only there was a tool, a guide, a checklist of sorts a writer could refer to . . .

Voila! Here’s what we think makes a great first chapter.

Actually, upon further reflection, we’ve decided it’s easier to tell you want does NOT make for a great first chapter.

  • Exposition, long bouts of exposition. Exposition is the epitome of “telling” and not “showing” a story. Sometimes, a little exposition is absolutely necessary. Like, for example, when you’re introducing a new character. At other times, though, it falls under that darling category (you know, the one you’re supposed to kill). Most of the time it’s somewhere in between — it adds a little spice or necessary information to keep the reader clued in and/or willing to suspend disbelief. On the one hand, the first chapter can appear to be the most logical place to put exposition. However, if you do that, you risk instilling in your reader the sense that you’re setting him or her up for the story instead of telling the story. Which you are doing. But readers want to be told (i.e., shown) a story. If your exposition extends beyond one or two sentences, ask yourself if you could sprinkle it throughout the book. Even better: challenge yourself with how you can use it to up the intrigue ante of your story. Could you add it in later to make it feel like an epiphany for the reader? Can you make it an aha! moment?
  • Background. Background works very much the way exposition does and shares similar uses. Likewise, you should treat it the way you do exposition: delete, sprinkle, or manipulate it to add intensity to the story.
  • Digressions. Really, it’s not necessary to tell the reader why your heroine is an avid proponent of the Paleo diet in the first chapter. Nor do we need a long discourse as to how it came about that her politics differ from her fathers. Likewise, the reader could probably do without a dissertation on the theories behind the migrating habits of elk in the springtime. If a characteristic or other phenomena is integral to the story, make it clear as soon as possible, but there’s no need to go into a long discourse as to why. If the “why” is ever challenged in the story, then you can clue the reader in, but do it when the moment comes up.

We could go on and on about what does NOT make a great first chapter, but really those three are the biggies. And now that you know what we don’t like to read in an opening chapter, let’s move on to what the title of this blog post promised: What makes a great first chapter?

It’s simple, really. Your opening chapter should do two things and only two things: (1) present the protagonist in such a way that the reader cares what will happen to him/her and (2) put that person in a situation where the stakes are high.

Show us a protagonist we can root for. Or, show us a protagonist we loathe so much that we want to see how he or she will be brought to justice. And get that protagonist in a situation that will propel the rest of the story. Easy! (insert evil laugh here)

Anything else you add to those two elements will only slow down the reading and make your reader wonder when the story will actually start. If that first chapter is a true page turner, the reader will want the background info, the exposition, and the digressions later and will probably be eager to read it all. However, if the first chapter is like a study session for the story, the reader may just get bored and, unless you’re planning on promoting your book as a cure for insomnia, you really don’t want to bore your readers.