So why is the first chapter so important? The first chapter is many things, but it ultimately helps the reader decide if they want to keep reading. As writers, we want our readers to keep reading our story. The first chapter is our best bet at getting them to keep reading.
So, what can we do as writers to keep readers interested in our book? Well, there are a few things that I’ve seen done in other books that are good examples to follow. We don’t need to do every single one of these things as writers, they aren’t rules you must follow. They are just things that other writers have done that helped their book.
The first thing the first chapter can do to successfully keep their reader is to hook the reader. You might ask, “what is the hook?” Well think of it this way, it’s like what a fisherman does. You put something that the fish will want on the hook so that the fish will bite into it and the fisherman can catch the fish. Well, we as writers want to “hook” our readers. Generally, the hook comes in the first couple of sentences. And one of the best ways that a writer can “hook” their readers is by getting the readers to ask questions. Let’s look at an example:
“Wind howled through the night, carrying a scent that would change the world. A tall Shade lifted his head and sniffed the air.”
-Prologue of Eragon by Christopher Paolini
While this is not technically the first chapter of Eragon, it is the first thing that the reader is going to read so its goal is still to hook the reader. Notice how Paolini is getting the reader to ask questions with these first two sentences. Why would the scent change the world? What is the scent? What is a Shade? Is he human? We want our questions answered, so the only thing to do is to keep reading. Paolini has now hooked us.
The hook also contains action. We as readers can infer that action is about to happen. And a good hook makes us wonder why this action is happening, thus motivating us to keep on reading. This is a greater hook that can carry on for the entire chapter, and sometimes even a good bit of a book, maybe even a series (apparently, the classic fantasy series The Wheel of Time’s prologue isn’t fully explained for a couple of books). This is a greater hook that gets us to finish the chapter, and sometimes even the book.
Let’s look at another example of a hook from a fantasy classic:
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”
-Chapter One of The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien
This one gets us to ask questions, but an action scene is clearly not taking place. So how does Tolkien hook us? Well, he makes us ask a big question, what is a hobbit? He goes on to describe where the hobbit lives, but he still gives us very little information on hobbit’s themselves. We as readers keep asking the question, and so we keep reading. This is a good example of using description to hook a reader. Chapter One of The Hobbit doesn’t do much at the beginning of the chapter but describes the lives of hobbit’s, particularly Bilbo Baggins and his family. By the time we have found our answer to “what is a hobbit?” we want to know more about Bilbo, and so we are successfully hooked as readers. This leads us to the next point.
The second thing the first chapter can do to successfully keep their reader is to get the reader to want to know more about your protagonist, especially by teases. You don’t want to give away the whole backstory of your protagonist in chapter one. If you are able to keep teasing the reader, they will want to keep coming back for more.
As I tried to think of an example of this, I thought about the Prologue of Mistborn: The Final Empire. It successfully teased Kelsier, giving us just enough information for the readers to want more of him. Sanderson gave us teases of Kelsier’s backstory while setting a scene that made us fall in love with the character. By the end of the chapter, we’re hooked and want more of Kelsier.
The last thing the first chapter can do to successfully keep their reader is to start the chapter with a bang. I touched on this a little bit in my first point, but I wanted to expound on it a little more. When we as readers are thrown into the middle of an action scene, it can be a little much. So you really have to give a balance of the action and explanation of things. It can draw the reader in, or will turn them away. So you have to be sure to enter in the right place and give just enough information that the reader won’t be too confused. And an action scene doesn’t have to be a sword fight or gunfight, it can be someone driving down the road to the grocery store!
So in summary, great first chapters (or prologues depending on the book) have shown us how to start off books well in three different aspects. They successfully hook the reader at the beginning of the chapter. They successfully tease the protagonist, giving the reader just enough to want to know more about them.
So what do you think? Do you agree or disagree with me? Let me know in the comments below!
From my pen to your paper, may our swords never clash.
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2 replies on “The Importance of Chapter One (or the Prologue)”
This is a pretty good article. Obviously, the style of the first chapter varies dramatically from book to book, and there’s very few “wrong” ways to write a first chapter. However, within different genres there are, sometimes, different preferences; it helps to really know your genres. You might try to hook readers into your romance book with an exciting chase scene in chapter one, but people don’t read romances for exciting chase scenes, so this makes your book look out of place within your genre. Definitely know what your audience is used to, and while you don’t want to necessarily copy what everyone else does, do try to stay within reason.
For me, personally, I’m not a fan of books starting out with an action scene. If the main characters are in a life-threatening situation, you have my attention for a few pages, but beyond that, if you don’t give me something more, I’m going to get bored. Unless this is a sequel/prequel, I don’t know who the main character is. I have no idea what’s at stake. There’s no reason for me to care about him/her.
Now, in some books, the story doesn’t get moving until the external conflict introduces itself–maybe in the form of the main character being attacked or kidnapped, or some sort of related action-related sequence. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to see that. I just don’t want to see it happen in the first chapter. Readers aren’t typically going to care about your character unless you let them get to know him/her first. I strongly suggest you use chapter one, maybe even chapter two as well, as an opportunity to introduce your characters to us, and then introduce the action in chapter two/three.
Some writers, however, have a plan for their first chapter: a tale from the villain’s perspective. A small part of their backstory, or maybe a scene showing the destruction they cause. Fantastic. This is called a prologue. Your first chapter, 99% of the time, should be focused on the main character. (I don’t recommend prologues either, but that’s a different topic.)
The other main thing to avoid (looking at you, fantasy writers) is an info dump of world building. Especially when the info dump occurs as a conversation between the main character and a side character who both already know all this stuff and have no business discussing it like they were born yesterday. World-building is fantastic, but you want to spread it out. The first chapter will likely have a little more world-building than any other individual chapter (if your book is taking place in a different world, you want to explain what it’s called, describe the region’s climate, the people of your village, etc.), but this is not a good time to have the main character go on a spiel about who founded the country and the caste system and the rest of its glorious history. There will be plenty of time for that later, I promise.
That got longer than I meant it to. TL;DR: Know your genre; don’t start with action unless you’re sure you can make it work; and please don’t info-dump. Just a few thoughts.
I completely understand your point! I think that an “action scene” can be just about anything though. It can be a conversation, someone fetching the mail, or even a character driving. You definitely want to avoid info-dumping as that turns a lot of readers away. If you are giving information about the character and the world slowly while they are completing an action, it can help the readers feel a lot less overwhelmed. That’s more of what I meant by an action scene, it doesn’t have to be guns and swords to be an action scene! I probably should have clarified in the article that I don’t mean for an action scene to be that, so I apologize for that misunderstanding 🙂
And I was planning on writing an article on the Pros and Cons of Prologues so I’m sure we’ll have some things to say about that on that post 🙂