9 Tips for Writing the First Chapter & Engaging Readers

How you start the first chapter of your book can make or break your entire project. Think of your first chapter as a test for your novel or work. If you alienate your readers in the first chapter, you can’t get them back. However, if you do it right, you are creating a captive audience for the rest of your story. These tips will help you capture the reader’s attention and keep them reading until the last page.

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1. Know What Works for Your Kind of Book

Are you writing fiction or nonfiction? When thinking about how to write an engaging first chapter, fiction and nonfiction books can be quite different. Not only will the actual content differ substantially, but so should your approach, even if the end goal of capturing the reader's interest is similar.

With fiction, you might "hook" the reader by vividly describing a unique or compelling character with a bit of a secret. Alternatively, you may draw in the reader with an incredible setting or an intriguing central conflict. With nonfiction, it's more about presenting the argument of why this book is relevant to the reader. Why does this topic matter? Why might it be interesting or otherwise provide useful value to the reader?

2. Create a Plan

While it may be tempting to jump in and just start writing, you’ll cut down on your revision work if you write an outline before you write that first chapter. If you neglect planning, you may end up having to scrap the whole first chapter and start again. An outline doesn’t have to be terrifying, though.

The outline is not set in stone; feel free to rearrange some of the content as you go. This will give you a destination of where you want to go and when you need to go there. Think of this outline as a first chapter checklist, making sure you hit all the points you want to make.

The outline can be in any style you like. It is up to you as the writer to determine how in-depth you make the outline. Just remember that the more details you put in an outline, the more vivid the book will be to you, the writer. Explore plot of a story examples to better understand the core structure of a good narrative.

3. Make Your First Paragraph Count

The opening of your first chapter should be one that pulls readers into the book and leaves them wanting more. This first sentence needs to reach through the pages and grab readers. By doing this, you engage your readers right off the bat and get them so engrossed in the book they do not want to put it down. You want readers to feel they are part of the book. Capture their interest and give them a reason to keep reading.

One way to do this is to make sure your first paragraph leaves the reader needing to know more. Borrow a page from journalism school and brush up on how to write a hook. Provoke their thoughts and entice them to read further into your remarkable tale.

4. Show Your Voice

The first paragraph is where you get to introduce your reader to your writing style and sell them on continuing the story. Think of this as your “elevator pitch” for your book. From the very first sentence, your book needs to be in your voice as a writer.

Don’t emulate other writers here. Write the way you think and in the tone you plan to use throughout your book. As you continue your book, reread your first chapter several times to check the voice and make sure it’s consistent.

5. Pick the Point of View

What point of view will you use to tell this story? Knowing whether you’ll be using first person or third person matters in how you frame the narrative, and it’s a decision you need to make in the first chapter. This will affect everything you write from this point on.

You’ll also need to decide on tense. Is this a story that happened in the past? Is it happening now? This is another decision that will affect the rest of your story.

6. Have a Story Arc in the First Chapter

Although your first chapter is part of a larger story, you can make it especially compelling by giving it a miniature plot of its own. While you don’t want to resolve everything in this mini plot at the end of the first chapter, you should provide a little satisfaction for your reader.

To do this, determine something your character needs in this first chapter and set a couple of small obstacles in their path. This is not the main plot of your story, but it should fit in. For instance, if your main plot is a murder mystery, the first chapter might have your main character tracking down a witness to the crime.

A mini plot like this keeps the story moving, and it makes your first chapter a page-turner. That leaves a great impression on the reader, who won’t be able to resist reading on.

7. Introduce an Amazing Character

Characters are what make great novels. If you have characters that intrigue, you have readers asking questions. When readers ask questions, they're motivated to learn more about your characters and the book in general. That makes your first chapter a success.

With characters, it is always good to investigate and get to know them as the writer. Characters will often take over and evolve on their own. Consider the character traits that make the people in your story unique. Dynamic characters propel your story forward.

8. Include Just the Right Amount of Detail

In writing the first chapter of your book, you definitely want to get readers interested. This can mean including key details of what they can expect to find in the rest of the book. With fiction, you want to give readers some sense of the story's setting and the type of tale they can anticipate. With nonfiction, readers should have a good idea of the subject matter to follow.

At the same time, you don't want to give away everything in the first chapter either. Otherwise, readers will not have any reason or motivation to read any further. The basic premise of the book should be clear, but you can tease obliquely at what mysteries may lay ahead. Unexpected plot twists and character reveals are powerful tools! Save them for later in the book.

9. Have Confidence in Your Skills as a Writer

Don’t panic if you are finding the first chapter intimidating. While this chapter is important, it’s not set in stone. As you continue writing, you may find you need to go back and revise. That’s okay.

You can even take some risks in your first chapter and experiment with new techniques or ideas. Just like your reader, you can use this chapter to get a feel for your story. The most important thing to remember about how to write a first chapter is not to get bogged down or overwhelmed. Just keep writing and come back to the first chapter if you need to.

Learn From the Masters

If you’re still not sure how to write the first chapter of your book or novel, get some inspiration from some of your favorite books. Check out some examples of novels and look at how the writer engages the reader right from the first chapter.

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