8 Tips on How To Write a First Chapter That Grips the Reader

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Dos and don'ts from article on how to write a first chapter of a book
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“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” it was one of the most famous first chapter lines in literature. A killer hook, a gripping backstory, an unforgettable character — no, we’re not talking about a horror movie plot. These are some of the elements that contribute to an enticing first chapter. We can’t give you a magic formula that will get your opening line quoted as much as Charles Dickens’, but we can give you some advice on how to write a first chapter that puts a spell on readers.

1. Include the Basics in Your First Chapter

As the hook to persuade readers they need to keep reading your book, the first chapter should include everything a summary would. You want to be unique and inventive in your writing, but leaving out these story elements will probably confuse readers more than entice them. 

Basic information to include:

  • Some introduction to the main character and their goal or dilemma
  • An indication of the tone and voice used throughout
  • A hint of what the overall theme could be
  • Something unexpected or exciting (introduction to the antagonist, a life-changing event, etc.)

2. Use the “Less Is More” Approach

When it comes to a book chapter, simple doesn’t mean boring. It does mean don’t over-describe the setting, introduce too many characters, or use terms that are far too technical at this point in the book. 

For nonfiction books, Author Karen Frazier suggests keeping in mind the purpose of a first chapter.

I think the main thing in a first chapter is an engaging introduction to the material as well as establishing why the reader needs the information and why you’re the one to tell it. 

Author Michael Kwan agrees with this “keep it simple, yet interesting” approach. 

[In a first chapter, don’t] be too broad or try to cover too many bases. That’s what the rest of your book is about. Provide context, sure, but give a concrete reason why the reader should keep reading.

3. Start With an Unexpected Line

Famous quotes, clichés, and profound statements are expected at this point, so what can you say that sets the tone of the book while also feeling unique? 

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 and in the book’s tone.

For nonfiction books, Karen Frazier shares one strategy:

I often start with a personal anecdote (or an anonymous client case study) to illustrate the need for the information I’m sharing, my expertise, and to engage the readers.

Other options include starting with a simple sentence that contains only a subject and a verb, a unique quote from your main character, or starting in the middle of a conflict. For example: 

  • “We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.” -The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
  • “‘We should start back,’ Gared urged as the woods began to grow dark around them. ‘The wildlings are dead.’” -A Game of Thrones, George R. R. Martin
  • “Marsh is not swamp.” -Where the Crawdads Sing, Delia Owens
  • “As I sit here with one foot on either side of the ledge, looking down from twelve stories above the streets of Boston, I can’t help but think about suicide.” -It Ends With Us, Colleen Hoover
  • “About 14 million years ago, matter, energy, time and space came into being in what is known as the Big Bang.” -Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari

4. Gauge the Feeling of Your First Line and First Paragraph

Since your first line and first paragraph of your chapter are arguably the most integral parts of the entire book, it’s good to get some feedback early on about them. 

Find some people in your target audience (friends, family members, social media followers, etc.) to serve as a mini focus group. Send them your first line, with no context (especially no indication that this is your writing from a work in progress), and ask them to share how it makes them feel. If most of them reply with the feelings you were aiming for, you’ve got a good opening line for your book. 

You can do the same with the entire first paragraph or even the first chapter. Pay attention to whether your readers want to read on and where they get confused.

5. 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. You won’t want to resolve everything in this mini plot at the end of the first chapter, but you can provide a little satisfaction for your reader.

To do this, determine something your character needs in these early stages of the story, and set one or two small obstacles in their path. This is not the main plot of your book, but it should fit in.

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.

6. Leave Unclosed Loops

One way to engage your readers at the end of the first chapter, and most subsequent chapters, is to end with cliffhangers, or unclosed loops. The idea is to leave your reader begging to know more, to make them flip from one page to the next. As Michael Kwan suggests: 

While we might talk about “closing the loop” for tasks, projects, and to-do lists, you want to leave unclosed loops for your reader in the first chapter. You give them enough to intrigue them, but not enough to fully satisfy them. So, they can’t help but to keep reading.

7. Lean Into Your Audience and Genre

From nonfiction to fiction, the first chapter can be very different. As you write, think about your audience and genre. What is the standard? What will readers expect? Either way, your goal is to intrigue readers, but the approach to achieving that goal is different for each genre. 

For example, Karen Frazier shares how she approaches fiction and nonfiction differently: 

When I write fiction, I write in first person present tense because it has an immediacy that helps me communicate emotions well since much of my fiction writing is very emotional. I want my readers to feel like they are right there with the character.

For my nonfiction, I write almost exactly as I would talk to a class I was teaching the same subject.

8. Give It the Most Attention in Your Editing Rounds

The first chapter is the first thing an agent will read when considering whether to represent your book in the traditional publishing process. It’s also the first thing readers will see (after the front and back covers — which you may not have control over) whether you self-publish or land a publishing deal. It’s basically the deciding factor on whether someone will finish and recommend your book. 

Whether you write it first or last, give your first chapter lots of extra attention in your editing rounds — more than any other chapter. Create a checklist of all that you want your first chapter to be. In each round of editing, focus on one of those elements. 

A first chapter template checklist might include questions like:

  • Are the opening line and opening paragraph impactful and intriguing? 
    • Do they evoke the feelings you want without giving too much information? 
    • Do they work as standalone quotes from your book?
    • Are they the most memorable lines from the first chapter? 
  • Have you introduced your main character and their dilemma or goal?
  • Is there a storyline that is left incomplete?
  • Does it use the same voice or tone as the second chapter?