How To Write a Killer Opening Chapter
There’s nothing more crucial to the success of your book than having a killer opening chapter, and there’s nothing that can kill your book quicker than an unsuccessful one. The first chapter of any novel is responsible for introducing a compelling character that readers will become invested in, establishing the key tonal and thematic elements of the story, setting the reader’s expectations, and, of course, enticing the reader with juicy, irresistible hooks. And, most importantly, a first chapter must propel not only the reader but also you, the writer, forward; put another way, a well-executed opening chapter will arm you with enough creative and narrative momentum to forge your way through the rest of the book.
But what exactly makes for a killer opening chapter? You could interpret the phrase literally and start your story off with a dead body—after all, you can’t write a killer opening chapter without getting a little blood on your keyboard, right? But that’d be missing the point. A successful opening chapter doesn’t need to rely on spectacle and shock value; all it needs to do is achieve the five key tasks listed below. Or, to translate that into clickbait-ese: Follow These Five Steps to Write a KILLER Opening Chapter (Number 2 Will Blow Your Mind).
STEP ONE: The Three-Hook Beginning
If you’ve been doing this writing thing for a while, you’ve probably heard that you need to start your story off with a strong hook. And if you’re new to the game, well, yeah—this is one of the harsh truths of the trade. Readers are no more obligated to see your book through to the end than they are to pick it up in the first place. To compensate for that fact, you have to make your book—to borrow a phrase from horrid back-cover copy—“unputdownable.” This task is accomplished by what we call a hook—a little narrative morsel that wows the reader, that piques their curiosity, that toys with their emotions, or all of the above. And you’re going to want not one, not two, but three distinct hooks in your opening chapter. As they say, all badass things come in threes.
Hook #1 is your opening line. A professor of mine once noted that the best opening lines are simultaneously vague and specific. Let me parse that for you: an opening line should be specific enough that it conjures a distinct image or emotion but vague enough that it leaves the reader asking questions. With the right opening line, you create a multiverse—a plethora of possible realities that roar to life in a reader’s mind as their eyes skim the page. Intrigue the reader by engaging their imagination and sparking their sense of curiosity. A good opening line is a lot like a good writing prompt: it gets the reader asking a specific question but leaves sufficient room for nigh-unlimited answers.
Hook #2 collapses your multiverse into a single timeline. This second hook should usually fall at the end of your first paragraph. The purpose of this hook is to contextualize the opening line by taking its many implications and compacting them into a concrete source of tension. If the preceding sentences established who, what, when, and where, then this final sentence establishes the why—why the reader should keep reading, that is. Take that intrigue from your opening line and show us the implications it has for your protagonist: why do they (and by extension the reader) care about the unusual thing you’ve just shown us? If our first hook was meant to engage the reader’s sense of intrigue, this second one is meant to engage their emotions, usually by creating suspense or some other form of tension.
Hook #3 comes at the very end of the opening chapter. Hopefully, by the time we get there, stuff has happened (the most commonly reported cause of death for opening chapters is a lack of narrative progression). We’ve observed our character finessing their way through their natural habitat. We’ve allowed the reader to get comfortably situated in the world of our story. But comfort is a gateway drug to sleep. What you need to do here is douse the reader’s head with a bucket of ice water. In more practical terms, what you want to do is create suspense by raising a new question or concern for the protagonist. The goal here is to engage the reader’s sixth sense (not that sixth sense—I’m talking about proprioception, the sense of movement). Give the reader a sense that the plot has progressed and will continue to progress (preferably at a rapid pace). Give them a reason to flip over to the next page.
STEP TWO: A Concrete Goal
Remember what I said about opening chapters where nothing happens? Don’t be that author. Give your protagonist something to do—assign them a specific task to accomplish in the opening chapter and then let us watch them attempt to accomplish it.
Tip: Introduce this goal and its significance to your character in your second hook.
Readers don’t want to see a character in stasis. Your opening chapter is the optimal place for you to show off your protagonist in action; it’s the perfect opportunity to demonstrate how awesome, competent, witty, clever, or badass your character is. It’s also the perfect place to show us how much of a blundering idiot they are, if that’s the story you’re trying to tell.
Now, it’s not simply enough to give your character a goal and have them accomplish that goal. No, that’d be too easy. Rather, make sure that your character brushes up against sufficient obstacles. Your character should have not only a task to accomplish, but also a hurdle to overcome.
Tip: Not sure how to end your chapter? Have your character fail to accomplish their goal. Or have them succeed but with negative consequences.
STEP THREE: Hitting That Tone
A novel’s opening chapter is all about promises made to the reader. The most important promises are those of genre and tone. The opening chapter is where you let the reader know what type of story they’re in for and what sort of conventions you’re going to be drawing upon. Communicating the tone and genre early on prevents the reader from feeling betrayed when they get to act three and realize that your gritty zombie apocalypse story is actually—surprise!—a paranormal romance. Is your story going to engage with the classic tropes, or is it going to be full of subversions? Is it going to be super dark and edgy, or will it refuse to take itself seriously? Is your story grounded in reality, or does it thrive on delicious nonsense? What type of world is your story set in? What types of characters inhabit that world?
If you’re writing science fiction or fantasy, there’s yet another layer to this step: providing the reader with glimpses of your magic or technology system. Classically, we accomplish this by way of what is scientifically referred to as Nuntii cacati: the dreaded info-dump. Again, don’t be that author. Magic and tech are supposed to be, you know, cool. Don’t turn them into one of those tedious reading assignments that never wind up on the final exam; let us see them in action by having your protagonist demonstrate them to us in real time.
Tip: Writing sci-fi or fantasy? Introduce the speculative elements of your story through the obstacle your character faces and through their method of overcoming it.
STEP FOUR: Character, Character, Character
Nothing—I will repeat that—nothing is more important than character. Characters are the lenses, the avatars, the filters through which the reader experiences your story. If your protagonist is a blank slate, then what we wind up getting is an objective view of the world, one that lacks any flair or flavour and reads like an article in one of those dusty encyclopedias on your grandparents’ bookshelves. No, your character should be engaging with the world, and to do that properly, they have to be a fully fleshed-out person (or talking animal, or mythical creature, or inanimate object).
How does one establish character in the span of a single chapter? Luckily, authors have a vast arsenal of tools at their disposal. Narrative voice works particularly well if you’re writing in first person. Quirky dialogue and behavioural tics will do the trick if you’re not. Free indirect discourse lets you slip into the character’s head even if you’re writing in third person. These are just some of the little tricks that will help piece together the illusion of a personality.
But characters are more than personality. Characters want things. I’m going to say that again, because it always astounds me how many writers (including me, when I was starting out) don’t realize this. Characters want things. They want things right now (like an ice-cream sandwich). They want things several years down the line (like a Netflix adaptation for my YA fantasy series). To create the illusion of character is to create the illusion of desire.
You’ve already taken care of the character’s short-term motivation by giving them a goal to accomplish. But what about the long-term? What’s most important to your character? Why do they do the things they do? What are their dreams (and I don’t mean the sleeping kind you erroneously decide to start your opening chapter with)? You don’t need to spell these things out explicitly, but the more you can hint at them, the greater depth the reader will perceive your character to have.
STEP FIVE: The Domino Plot
Lastly, but perhaps most crucially, your opening scene(s) should initiate a seamless chain of events that eventually culminate in your novel’s inciting incident. Now that’s a mouthful. Let me clarify.
The opening scene isn’t some random set of events that are disconnected from the main plot. Your character tries to accomplish something. Their success or failure has consequences. They attempt to deal with those consequences, and that attempt in turn has its own consequences. A leads to B, leads to C, and so on, until we arrive at that key event that your story’s entire existence hinges upon. A well-plotted story, then, is a lot like a meticulously arranged chain of dominoes.
By employing this method, not only do you avoid bogging your story down with pointless scenes, but, as an added bonus, your protagonist’s involvement in the main plot winds up being a direct consequence of the actions they took in the opening chapter—had they not done what they did, there would be no story. If that’s not the definition of a protagonist, I don’t know what is.
Of course, there’s no such thing as an absolute rule when it comes to writing. You can, in theory, write a great opening chapter without following these steps. But here’s why they work. Readers need to care about the characters, or they won’t have any interest in reading on. They need to feel like the characters are driving the story, and not the other way around (there’s a page on the website TV Tropes called Pinball Protagonist—this is not a page you want your story winding up on). They need to know specifically what it is they’re rooting for—it’s really hard to cheer somebody on when all they’re doing is going about their day to day life. They need to know what type of story they’re reading and will feel betrayed if you suddenly shift gears mid-book.
So what is a first chapter, really? A first chapter is a chance not only to hook the reader on your story, but also to demonstrate your craft as a storyteller. If you can accomplish all five of these tasks within the confined space of a single chapter, you’ll be showing the reader that you are a competent and efficient storyteller who knows how to properly create tension and deliver a satisfying payoff. And that will go a long way toward convincing them to read the rest of your book.