10 WORST Tips for Writing the FIRST CHAPTER of your Book
Today we're talking about the dreaded first chapter and all the ways you can screw it up! The first chapter is one of, if not the hardest chapter to write, because it is your reader’s first impression of your story. And that is terrifying! A while back, I listed the 10 best tips for writing your first chapter on my YouTube channel and today I'm breaking down the tips that you should maybe sorta be leery of.
Now, usually when I talk about worst tips, I give a sarcastic list of sucky tips and I rip ‘em to shreds. But today we're doing things a little bit different! There's a lot of really solid advice floating around about how to write the first chapter. The problem is this advice gets stretched or misconstrued to the writer's detriment. So, just for you, I’m listing 10 common tips for writing your first chapter that a lot of writers misunderstand and completely fuck up, taking these good intentions and totally annihilating them!
Buckle up, buttercup!
This video is sponsored by Milanote. As always, all opinions are my own.
If you haven’t already, don’t forget to also subscribe to my YouTube channel for more writing tips, sarcasm, and of course, more of Princess Butters!
Number 1: Open With a Hook
This is probably the most common piece of advice that writers hear in regard to the first chapter.
“If you don't hook the reader on the first sentence, they won't read the rest of the book!”
I said it once and I'll say it again: this is bullshit. This tip mainly exists for the querying process. Agents receive a lot of manuscripts that they gotta flip through, so you wanna make sure the first sentence catches their attention. But that don't mean you gotta humiliate yourself for the sake of agency approval. Yes, your first sentence should be strong. Yes, it should capture attention. But you can do that with one clause. Or, hell, one word. Stop trying to fit the Declaration of Independence into your first sentence, and for the love of God, stop opening your book with a ridiculous metaphor or simile. If you're comparing the sunset to cat vomit, you've gone too far.
Number 2: Start the Story with a Bang
You should obviously open your book with an interesting scene, something engaging for readers to sink their teeth into. The problem is when you do it at the expense of the overall tone of your novel. A lot of people hear “start the story with a bang,” and they open their book with death, danger, sex, or drama. These are great ideas…if your book is about death, danger, sex, or drama. If you're writing a romantic comedy and you open up with a gruesome death, congratulations! You betrayed the tone of your novel. If you're writing a wholesome historical and you open with a graphic sex scene, readers are gonna be confused as fuck.
Yes, begin with a scene that carries impact, but make sure it mirrors the overall impact of the story. If you're writing a romance, you can open up with a dramatic breakup, a dating fail, or even a sex scene. If you're writing action adventure, you can open up with a gunfight, or a murder. Just make sure the bang matches what the reader should expect overall throughout the story.
Number 3: Set the Scene
Setting the scene is important at the start of every chapter and hell, every scene. You need to ground the reader in the moment and give them a sense of time, location, emotion, and character. But this can be accomplished in one or two sentences.
Tell that to a lot of newbie writers out there! A huge mistake writers make is they hear “set the scene,” and they interpret it as profuse world building. Instead of starting the story, their first chapter introduces their world, its history, its climate, its government...
Not only does this not matter in the first chapter, this is fucking boring! Your first chapter is designed to captivate the reader. Pages upon pages about trees ain't gonna do that! Yes, you should set the scene in the first chapter. Give the readers a sense of timing and placement, but not at the expense of the story.
Yes, you should set the scene in the first chapter. Give the readers a sense of timing and placement, but not at the expense of the story.
Number 4: Establish Normalcy
Typically, the first chapter shows the normal day to day life of the main character right before everything changes, usually due to the conflict or the inciting incident. The key phrase here is “right before.” This means this look into normalcy should be brief, and that is one of the most common mistakes I see among newbie writers.
Writers will use the entire first chapter and hell, even the second and third chapter to illustrate their main character’s everyday life, which is… Can you guess, guys? Can you guess what this is? That's right! Fucking boring!
We only need a snapshot, something that serves to juxtapose the excitement and turbulence of the plot. Bottom line: establishing normalcy should last for less than one chapter. Move on to something interesting! If readers wanted to see the mundane, they’d just clock back into work.
Number 5: Start with the Inciting Incident
In the opening chapter, it's vital to establish two things: the conflict of the story as well as your main character's goal. These two elements directly lead into your inciting incident, which is the moment your main character embarks on their journey, either because they are forced to do so or by personal choice. The inciting incident usually occurs within the first two, maybe three chapters, and sometimes it even occurs within chapter one. But that doesn't mean you should open with it.
A lot of writers hear, “start with the inciting incident,” and take it very literally. Their opening paragraph is the inciting incident. I’d say there are rare situations where this works, but on the whole, this is not a good idea. We don't know your main character, their goals, or their conflict. We have zero connection to them, yet somehow we're expected to care about the inciting incident? Does that make sense to you?
I'm not sure how you can make an opening paragraph inciting incident emotionally impactful, let alone clear to readers. Readers don't know what the fuck is going on. They just got here! Sure, if you can fit your inciting incident into the first chapter and it makes sense, go for it! But using it as an opener nine times out of ten ain't gonna work.
Number 6: Emphasize Clarity
It's super important to make your first chapter as clear as possible. This is your opening and if readers are confused right off the bat, they're not gonna keep reading. However, there are two specific ways writers misinterpret this advice to suit their negative habits.
The first is info dumping. A lot of writers feel the need to explain everything in the first chapter, from the world, to the plot, to the character dynamics. This is both painfully dull and insulting to your reader’s intelligence. It's not your job to spoon feed the reader. Reading is about taking the information provided and putting together the context clues.
The second issue is when you provide so much clarity that readers are left with absolutely no questions by the end of the chapter, which completely negates continuing on with the book. Every chapter should end with a question. Your reader needs motivation to continue reading. If you explain everything and answer every question, that motivation is gone.
Number 7: Establish the Villain
As we already covered, it's very important to establish the conflict in the first chapter. Sometimes that means introducing the villain, but this is definitely not an absolute. That's the issue with this advice. It's rigid. People hear it and freak out.
“Guess I have to shoehorn the villain into the first chapter, lest the reading gods smite me!”
Here's the deal. Yes, it's a great idea for your villain to make an appearance as soon as possible, but that doesn't necessarily mean it has to be chapter one. I usually like to aim for somewhere within the first three chapters.
But even then, in some situations, that's not possible. Is your villain a mystery? Are you writing a whodunit novel and readers are supposed to sniff the villain out? Maybe your villain has henchmen to do their dirty work. In that case, the henchmen may make an appearance within the first three chapters, while your villain remains in the background. Maybe there isn't a villain at all. Maybe life, family, or other outside influences serve as the conflict of your novel. Basically, while I'd argue you absolutely have to establish the conflict in chapter one, the villain’s on page debut could potentially come later.
Number 8: Look to Your Favorites for Guidance
A lot of writers recommend voracious reading as a way to hone your writing skills, and for good reason. If you're trying to navigate a particular part of the writing process, including the first chapter, you can read some of your favorite author’s works and see how they navigated that process in the past themselves. But there are a few caveats to keep in mind. Considerations that a lot of newbie writers often forget.
For starters, consider the era of the writing you're looking at.
“Tolkien opens with world building, so I'll just make my first chapter all about plants and trees.”
Congratulations! You just lost your readers. Storytelling expectations change over time. People read the classics expecting the storytelling to be classical, but if they're picking up a modern book, they're expecting a modern style. That’s you, bitch!
Next, you need to consider the genre, especially if you're writing a multi-genre work. It's great if you're a fan of Sanderson’s high fantasy, but if you're writing fantasy romance, that's a whole different blueprint. Look at modern books written in your exact genres, otherwise you are walking away with the wrong info.
Number 9: Wing It!
It's been a while since I've upset the pantsers. Now seems like as good a time as any! A lot of people recommend that one wings the first chapter.
“Just write whatever feels right!”
I encourage you to maybe…not do that. Sure, if it feels right because it's the right place to start the story, then go for it! But the first chapter is often the trickiest. You have to introduce the main character and their goal, establish the conflict, set the scene, create a sense of normalcy, and maybe debut the inciting incident. That's a lot of shit to just leave up in the air.
If you're a pro pantser who's been getting by on this method for eons, that's fine. Do you! But for everyone else, maybe plan the first chapter ahead of time. That way, you know you're hitting all the appropriate parts.
Number 10: The First Chapter is the Most Important Chapter
This isn't so much a piece of advice as it is a statement of fact. The first chapter is extremely important because it's your sole chance to hook the reader. The reason I'm listing it here is because this statement, however factual, fucks a lot of people up. It's scary to know that the very first thing you write is the most important thing you'll write. That's a shit ton of pressure right out the gate, so much so that a lot of writers never make it past their first paragraph, let alone their first chapter.
So I encourage you when you are starting your first draft, put this factoid on the back-burner. Your rough draft is gonna be rough no matter what. It's in the goddamn name! Allow yourself to write something imperfect, and then once you finish the draft and you're in the self editing phase, polish that baby up! That's the time to focus on the importance of the first chapter, but until then, cut yourself some slack! Get the chapter written no matter what shape it's in and remind yourself that future you has got all the polishing and fine tuning covered.
So that's all I've got for you today!
By the end of this post, you should be able to take these tips and interpret them in a way that will actually help you write a decent first chapter. Imagine that! Advice doesn't mean shit if you don't understand it, so hopefully I’ve helped you out by telling you what these tips actually mean, so you can write a first chapter your readers devour.
Have you heard any of these tips floating around? Maybe you’ve come across some I haven’t listed. Tell me the most confusing first chapter advice you’ve heard in the comments!
Buy My Books!
CHECK OUT THE SAVIOR’S CHAMPION:
CHECK OUT THE SAVIOR'S SISTER: