Grace A. Johnson
first chapters | overcoming the common mistakes
The first chapter is a precarious little booger. If you’ve never struggled with those first few words, that first couple paragraphs, the first full scene—count yourself among the blessed. Nothing can make or break your story and the entire writing process like the Almighty First Chapter.
The AFC (just realized that’s the acronym for my church 😅) sounds simple enough, but you come across so many different ideas and “rules” and suggestions and norms for first chapters that the first two-to-six thousand words in your book can easily become the worst. A crazy amount of disbelieving questions will overtake your sense of confidence. Is there enough action? Is your main character likable enough? Do readers feel connected to the setting, plot, character, etc.? Did you hook them within the first few words? Does your first chapter foreshadow and set up the rest of the story?
Instead of listening to the advice that says “pack all the action you can into Chapter 1” or the tips that proclaim “the more information, the better” or even the folks that go in the opposite direction with “keep it vague—no info, no action, no nothing—and let your reader soak up your character’s daily life,” let’s pause for a moment. Ask yourself “What is the purpose of a first chapter?” rather than being bombarded with everything else.
I think you’ll find it really is simple enough to achieve an intriguing, balanced, and engaging first chapter.
what are your intentions?
Before you do anything else, consider the projected length of your entire story. I know what you’re thinking: “Grace, I haven’t written it yet! How in the heck am I supposed to know how long it’s gonna be?” or “Grace, I’m a pantser; I don’t even know what happens in the first chapter, let alone the possible length!”
And if you really are thinking that...then I probably should have written a post on outlining, brainstorming, and plotting first. 😬 (In the meantime, check this out. Hopefully it’ll tide you over!)
Anyway, my point is that you don’t have to know exactly how your story will unfold or how long it will be (because, oftentimes, your first chapter ends up dictating that); but you do need to have a vague idea of what your intentions are with this story. Is it going to be a short, fast-paced, thrilling suspense novel? Is it a romantic historical drama that spans across twenty years? Is it a quirky and cozy small-town mystery you could read in a sitting?
Your intentions for the story is what you write into it. If you don’t know that, we got a prob, Bob.
For Held Captive, I had a mental outline that consisted of three points: Rina is captured by Xavier, Rina meets her birth father, Rina and Xavier fall in love. (That sounds so weird out of context...y’all feel free to ask for more info in the comments if you’re curious about my debut novel!) Because I knew I wanted this to be a fast-paced, twisty pirate romance, I was able to communicate that through my writing.
So...is your story gonna be long or short? Fast or slow? A savor-every-page story or a stay-up-to-finish story?
For the sake of illustration, let’s say you’re writing a lyrical and enchanting fantasy epic. It’s gonna have that captivating classical prose that should be sipped on like mulled wine; a plot that’s full of twists, but with lots of build-up to make the climax more intense; world-building that’s unique and engaging; and a character journey that’s relatable, compelling, and inspiring. This is a story your readers will want to savor and take their time with.
What’s that got to do with your FC? Good question. It means your first chapter needs to be long. It needs detail on the little elements, ambiguity on the big ones, and a heavy focus on the setting, the main character, and the prose. Your main conflict, inciting incident, all that fun stuff needs to be saved for the next few chapters.
But if you were writing a cute binge-worthy romcom that’s perfect for a three-hour car ride, you’d want a shorter first chapter that focuses on drawing the reader into the character, the plot, and the laugh-out-loud flirty vibes. You might even wanna introduce the love interest right off the bat.
See what I mean? Before you start your first chapter, ask yourself:
~ What are my intentions with this story? Will it be long or short, fast or slow?
~ How will the projected length of the whole book translate into the length of the first chapter?
zoom in on your focus
Once you’ve figured out the potential length of your book, you’ve probably gotten a good idea of what the focus of your story is—plot or character, action or emotion, comedy or tragedy. You’ve begun setting the tone in your mind and creating an atmosphere throughout your outline, Pinterest boards, and playlists.
And that right there is of the utmost importance when it comes to your first chapter.
What is your focus on in this story? Are you focusing on your main character’s emotional journey or the intense mystery your team of detectives are drawn into? Because that’s the foundation of your first chapter.
Let’s go back to that epic fantasy example, shall we? The focus is going to be on the reluctant hero’s journey to redemption and love and all that mushy stuff, right? So should we focus our first chapter on packing in as much action as we can...or should we introduce our main character and make readers care for him?
You know the answer. We need to focus on the character, because he’s the focus of the story.
Now, say you’re writing a mystery or a thriller—your focus is on the plot, so you’re going to want to introduce your main character(s) and set the stage for your mystery in your first chapter. Everything from setting to conflict to crime needs to be established, along with your main character’s connection to all that. (Y’all, mysteries and thrillers are fast-paced, lemme tell ya! Hence why I don’t write them. 😂)
Once again, before you start...ask yourself:
~ What is the main focus of my story as a whole?
~ What is the best way to introduce my main focus to draw readers in?
pardon me, did i just dump on you?
I see what you’re doing. You’ve gotten all excited because you figured out the focus of that fantasy book, right? Your hero, who has a super sad past but a really fantastic story with so many twists that you need to foreshadow...and he lives in a world full of mythical creatures and political corruption that you have to explain so readers don’t get lost...and oops. You just info-dumped 80% of your book’s subtext and context on me.
There’s a reason why it’s called subtext and context—it’s not direct text. Info-dumping is a no-no not because readers don’t need information or because your first chapter (or first few chapters) need to be vague. It’s a no-no because it’s unprofessional and sloppy.
Ouch. I know that hurt. Take it from someone who loves a good info-dump...don’t do it.
If you pour every single detail about your character or story world or plot or whatever into the first chapter, readers are going to lose interest. They’ll feel disconnected from exactly what you’re telling them about and they’ll quickly become bored with the story.
You’ve got to strike a balance. You need details...just not all of them.
Take what you know about your story thus far: your length and your focus. If you’re working with a longer story, pick three to five things your reader has to know about so that they can understand what’s going on. If you’re working with a shorter story, pick one to three.
For example, with our fantasy project here, our readers need to know (1) the hero has experienced pain, (2) the hero seeks revenge, (3) the hero is going to seek revenge by taking down the corrupt government, and (4) the hero has no idea how he’s going to do that.
That’s backstory, worldbuilding, foreshadowing, conflict, plot—the whole kit and caboodle right there. BUT the trick is to keep it as vague as those statements above. Don’t tell your readers that the pain the hero experienced was from the government forcing his father to join the military, only for him to die in a pointless war. Just tell them he’s in pain—better yet, show them he’s in pain.
See what I mean? If you can supply your readers with what they need to know, they can connect with the character (or central plot). And if you keep it vague, they’ll be hungry to learn more. Eventually, you can weave in the subtext and they can discover the context.
Your first chapter is like a teaser trailer or the opening scene to a movie. Viewers don’t need to know everything—just enough to keep them watching. You need to intrigue them, pique their curiosity; and then, over the next couple chapters, you can invest them into the story.
So, what do you ask yourself this time? 😉
~ What are the most important few things (1-3 or 3-5) readers need to know so that they can connect with the story?
~ How can I intrigue my readers without investing them too much, too soon?
the #1 purpose
So you’ve done all the thinking and question-asking and brainstorming and prepping...and now you’re actually starting to write that daunting first chapter. Everything’s going smoothly until you realize that you’ve gotten a little ahead of yourself, so excited about all the action and the plot twists that you totally forgot to really introduce your main character and make your readers care about them.
See, that’s what people don’t tell you. Most readers don’t keep reading because the plot is action-packed and fast-paced...they keep reading because they care. They’ve connected to the MC/POV character and are so invested in their story that they have to find out what happens next, even if everything else about the book stinks.
A popular tip is to begin your story with your inciting incident; that is, the event (or such) that triggers the domino effect that makes up your entire book. But as convenient as that may seem, starting your story off with The Bang™ doesn’t give your readers time to understand why they should even care why Britta is the Chosen One or why Bob was murdered or why Margo went missing or why Laura is so attracted to Stefan.
Really, the #1 purpose of your first chapter is to introduce your main character and invite the reader to care about them and their story. Drop a hint about their sad backstory. Showcase their most redeeming quality. Highlight one of their inner struggles. Whatever it takes to help your readers see that your MC is real, relatable, and worth following on their journey—even if you are writing a plot-driven novel.
Hint: it doesn’t take the inciting incident.
The questions you need to ask are…
~ What is the inciting incident in my story, and why should it matter to readers?
~ Why should readers care about my main character, and how can I help them see that in the first chapter?
The process of creating a compelling first chapter all begins with understanding the purpose of a first chapter, which is to introduce your main character, make readers care, and piquing readers’ curiosity.
Weaving your purpose in is the next step, and you do that by helping readers understand the story (whether that’s the world it’s set in, the journey it follows, or the character leading the way), introducing the main focus of the story, and setting the pace/tone for the rest of the book.
All along the way, make sure you balance backstory with worldbuilding, action with emotion, and plot development with character development. Don’t info-dump, but give the necessary details only, and instead foreshadow the upcoming conflicts.
But whatever you do, don’t overthink it. Yes, I saw the wheels turning in your brain. Just give it your best shot, and if you need to rewrite a paragraph or scene, or try something new, or edit just a sentence or two, you absolutely can! I always try to take my time with beginnings because they are so crucial, so don’t be afraid to try out several different things to find the one that’s right!
Before you get to writing, let me know in the comments below...do you struggle with first chapters? If not, what’s the hardest part to write for you (beginning, middle, end, climax, inciting incident, resolution, etc.)? Do you make any of the common mistakes in your first chapters (if so, you’re in good company 😅)? I’d love to hear all your thoughts!
yours in spirit & script,
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