How to Start Writing The First Chapter Of A Book

All this week, here at the League we're talking about writing-- each of us are tackling a different subject, so be sure to check back every day to learn something new!

Today, I'm going to talk about writing first chapters and hooking your readers from page one. Recently, Penguin released the first chapter of my book (if you 'd like, you can download it here).

Several people have asked me how I came up with that chapter, so I thought I 'd go through that here.

How to Hook Readers with the First Chapter

The first thing you should know is: that was not my original first chapter. Originally, that was Chapter 4. The original first chapter is now chapter 4 (ironic), and the original second and third chapters were deleted.

When I had my work read by beta readers, they all felt the first chapters were okay, but not great. They were, to put it simply, "good enough." Chapter 4, on the other hand, was a chapter that everyone universally liked-- it made them sit up, and they really liked that one.

I resisted-- all the way until the final draft-- to rewrite my beginning and move Chapter 4 to Chapter 1. I thought readers would need that first three chapters of back story, that if I dropped them into the story too soon, they wouldn't understand what was going on. There was nothing wrong with the original three first chapters. They were good enough. I tried it anyway, and the response was much more positive.

And I learned three things:

  • Good enough is never good enough.
  • Trust your beta readers.
  • If they all think something doesn't work, you should seriously consider changing it.
  • Trust your readers.
  • Usually, they don't need three chapters of backstory-- they're smart enough to figure it out on their own.

So-- I moved Chapter 4 to Chapter 1, and it was a much much stronger that way. But why?

First, I 'd been reading lots of blogs and forums on the importance of first chapters and first lines. A first line that many people felt was very strong was the one in Charlotte's Web:
"Where's Papa going with that axe?" said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.
This line grabs attention-- it starts with dialog, so there's immediacy, and what's more important is that the question Fern asks becomes the question we, the readers, ask. Where is Papa going with that axe, anyway?

I decided to try it out on my work, and came up with:
Daddy said, "Let Mom go first.".
My goal was to make the reader ask questions-- where is Mom going? Why does Daddy want her to go? Which lead me to my next lesson in writing first chapters:.

If your reader asks questions, they can become emotionally invested in the story.
There's a corollary to this lesson: don't let the questions go on too long. In Charlotte's Web, the answer to the question comes quickly-- and I answered my own question in the very next paragraph of my first chapter. If you leave your reader with unanswered questions, he'll just become frustrated.

And also: you don't need to open with dialog (or with a question) to make your reader question what's going on. A key description, or an interesting emotion, or an unusual action is enough to make a reader question what's going on.

I had my initial hook. A hook does not a chapter make.

From the hook, I needed to maintain the reader's interest. In the first chapter, Amy watches first her mother, then her father, get frozen alive to prepare for a centuries long journey into space. One thing I did-- without realizing it at the time (my crit partner Rebecca pointed it out to me later) was repetition. Amy sees the freezing happen to her parents twice before she actually goes through it herself. There's dread and anticipation from watching it happen.

But the thing I consciously did-- and this is a bit gross to describe, but how I thought of it at the time and since-- was dig my fingers in their wounds.

I could have written that chapter in a paragraph: The all get frozen. Done.

Instead, I described every hurt and pain as graphically as I could. They get cut, I dig my fingers in their wounds, making it worse and worse. And if it wasn't bad enough? I poured salt on top of the wounds, too.

The main idea of my first chapter is pain-- but any intense emotion or feeling would do. If it was a kissing scene, I could have described the kiss in great depth, the emotion of love and longing. If it was a sad scene, I could do more than have a tear fall down the main character's cheek. The point is:.
Dig as deep as you can go into some sort of emotional or physical intensity.

The reason? We all have feelings. In the first chapter, you're trying to make us care about your characters-- do that by making us feel. I made my characters feel pain-- who hasn't felt pain? But you can have them feel anything-- really dig into the emotion, and you'll keep your readers hanging on.