When you buy a book on Amazon, do you use the Look Inside feature to read the first few pages?
Because I do. And I bet you do too.
Amazon’s Look Inside allows readers to see sample pages from the first chapter and from there, decide whether to buy this book.
Hence, this first chapter is just like a first impression.
It is the one that makes or breaks a sale. The one that makes readers decide if the book is interesting enough to purchase.
So how can we write an impressive first chapter that sells the book? Here are some ways on how I begin my novel~
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Start In Medias Res
In medias res is Latin for “into the middle of things” and this is usually at some crucial point in action.
In other words, you begin your novel in the midst of the plot.
There is no introduction or background information about the setting, characters’ backstories, prior plot events, historical context etc. You deliberately skip this part and throw your readers into the action. Then, you fill in the background information later either through dialogue (characters making reference to the event), flashbacks etc.
This is an effective first chapter because you don’t start with a typical info-dump of who’s who and where this place is. Instead, readers directly jump into the action itself. This immediately closes the distance between readers and your protagonist because they meet him at some crucial point in his life.
But you also need to bear in mind that your readers might not feel very strongly for this event. For example, you begin your novel with the death of your protagonist’s grandmother. Readers might not feel the loss as strongly as compared to inserting this scene somewhere later in the novel (after you’ve shown the strong bond between them).
Make Readers Connect With Your Protagonist
You can also begin your novel by introducing your protagonist.
Perhaps this main character is very interesting with particular quirks. Or he or she has a unique power or ability that drives the plot forward.
By introducing your protagonist in the first chapter, you close the distance between readers and your character. Readers can see for themselves the protagonist’s past as well as how this protagonist is like. This will allow them to quickly resonate with him or her. Thus, building a connection and forming a relationship between them.
The key is to make your readers relate to the protagonist. This can be done by creating relatable protagonists. They need to be likable and flawed at the same time. Meaning that your protagonist needs be someone who has both positive and negative traits. No one has only positive or negative traits. They have both.
After building this bond between readers and your main character, you can simply end this first chapter by throwing your protagonist straight into trouble. This way, you end your chapter with a cliffhanger (which encourages readers to purchase the book to find out what happens next).
Set The Mood & Atmosphere With Worldbuilding
You can also introduce the fictional world in the first chapter.
This can only be done after you did thorough research and worldbuilding. You can build the world as you write (which pantsers do). But as a plotter, I highly recommend that you do some worldbuilding first.
You need to have everything thought out to paint such a vivid and memorable setting. Plus, you don’t want to spend so much time writing about this new location page after page only to crush it in the end because it didn’t make sense. You want to get it right from the start, don’t you?
Worldbuilding involves thinking about many aspects such as
This constructed world doesn’t have to be realistic. It doesn’t have to be similar to the world we currently live in. But it needs to be plausible.
Also, if you plunge readers straight into this world that is very different from their world or the world we live in, you will pique their interest. Try to make them curious. Make them eager to know more about this new world you’ve created.
Furthermore, the setting can also help set the mood and atmosphere. For instance, you can paint a bleak picture with a dystopian world. Or you can create a seemingly perfect utopia where everything seems too good to be true and yet, there’s a subtle undercurrent of something being very wrong. This creates a sense of mystery and evokes curiosity in your readers.
Hint At The Conflict Or Plot
This is different from starting in medias res, where you begin your story in the middle of things or action.
This is where you subtly hint at the conflict or plot and build towards it. This is where you let readers know that there will a conflict later or at least, know roughly what the plot is like.
You can make the hint obvious so readers can guess accurately what the conflict or plot is. Or you could make the hint subtle so readers can’t really guess anything. You can also add a twist to the conflict or plot so it becomes unexpected and no reader will get it right.
This can be done in a few ways like revealing your protagonist’s goals, needs and wants. By showing how important this goal, need or want is to your protagonist, you set the foundation of a future adventure. Or you can reveal your protagonist’s weaknesses, flaws and insecurities and foreshadow how this will create a conflict with other characters later in your novel.
This is a great start to your story because you set a goal in your readers’ minds. They know immediately what direction your story will take: whether it’s embarking on an adventure or falling in love. And if this conflict or plot is compelling, readers will not hesitate to buy your book.
Arrest Attention With An Interesting Dialogue
Instead of seeing, you can make readers hear your characters speak through a dialogue.
An interesting dialogue will capture readers’ attention and let them hear for themselves how your characters are like, the way they talk and their relationships with others.
Plus, a dialogue is also a subtle way to let readers know your protagonist’s name. Rather than the usual “Eighteen-year-old John Parker woke up”, you can let a character call your protagonist so readers know his or her name without being told in the face.
So how do you make dialogue interesting? Here are just some ways but feel free to explore on your own~
- Talk about something secretive
- Talk about something unfamiliar to readers but unique to this fictional world (adding in unfamiliar words and phrases)
- Talk while being in the middle of some crucial action (eg. battle, rescue mission, covert operation)
Foreshadow To Build Anticipation & Suspense
Foreshadowing is where you drop hints of future events and clues about what is going to happen.
This builds expectation and anticipation where readers become interested to know more and at the same time, are curious about how things will happen that lead to this future event.
Foreshadowing creates an atmosphere of suspense and heightens tension due to uncertainties of the future where no one knows exactly what will happen until you read to the end of the story.
There are many ways that you can implement foreshadowing
- Dialogue between characters
- Plot events
- Changes in setting
Even your chapter titles can be a clue about what is going to happen!
Bonus Tip: Pull Readers Into Your Story… Hook Them!
The key goal of your first chapter is to make readers eager to continue reading.
Every sentence in the first chapter should aim to draw readers into the story. Make them want to flip the page and continue reading.
If there’s too much info-dump, cut them out. Delete anything that is unnecessary.
Also, take note of your pacing. Pacing is the speed at which a story is told, not necessarily the speed at which the story takes place. This is determined by the length of the scenes, how fast the action moves and how quickly the reader is provided with information.
Pacing is crucial. You need to pace your first chapter such that it is interesting. It shouldn’t be too draggy (that readers will put your book down) or too fast (that readers are overwhelmed and can’t catch up with your story).
Just aim to hook your readers in the first chapter. Get feedback from your beta readers like whether the first chapter is enticing, whether it keeps them intrigued to continue reading etc.
Now It’s Your Turn
These are just some ways of how I start my novel. What about you? How do you hook readers in the first chapter of your fiction novel?
Do consider getting novel planning worksheets. Etsy has many such printables, including word count trackers, novel outlines, character profiles, worldbuiling basics and more.
For more book publishing and marketing tips, check out classes like How To Write And Publish An eBook and Sell Your First 1000 Books. Or watch streaming broadcasts of free online classes at CreativeLive! You can also join online courses at Udemy~
Let’s craft better novels together with fellow writers~