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How to Write the First Chapter of Your Novel

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 2, 2020 • 4 min read

From J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series to the sci-fi classic The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, great novels nearly always have an opening chapter that captures the reader’s interest. The first chapter should engage readers, introduce your protagonist, and provide a window into the world of your story.



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How to Write the First Chapter of Your Novel

Writing your first novel is a daunting endeavor, and many novelists experience writer’s block before they’ve even made it past the first page. These writing tips will help you push through the block and ensure that your first chapter as rich and engaging as possible:

  1. Establish the tone. The first page of your novel should give the reader a sense of your story’s tone. If you’re trying to write a bestselling thriller, you’ll likely want a dark, brooding tone that leads us to a cliffhanger. If you’re writing a young adult novel, your tone might be airy and humorous. Your opening paragraph is your opportunity to establish the tone that the reader can expect from the rest of your story.
  2. Determine your point of view. Point of view is one of the most fundamental storytelling tools in an author’s arsenal, and it should be established early in the writing process. A first-person narrative allows the reader to gain deep insight into the protagonist’s thoughts, whereas a third-person limited perspective may increase suspense by withholding information about important characters and their backstories.
  3. Make sure your protagonist has a clear goal. When introducing your protagonist, you should make sure that the reader understands the goal that they will spend the novel trying to achieve. That doesn’t mean that the goal needs to be explicitly identified on the first page, but the seeds should be planted early. Usually, the protagonist must break from the status quo in order to achieve their goal. What about the character’s current situation do they want to change?

5 Things to Include in the First Chapter of Your Novel

Few novels can survive a bad first chapter. Not only will it discourage readers from continuing onward, but it will make the rest of your novel harder to write. Think of your opening chapter like the foundation of a skyscraper: Unless it’s strong, the whole thing will collapse. These elements should be included in your novel’s first chapter in order to hook readers and ensure that the rest of your novel has a solid foundation:

  1. A gripping first paragraph: Beginning with your very first sentence, your reader will start to form their first impression of the rest of the book. That’s why the opening paragraph is so important. Your opening scene should pique your reader’s curiosity, establish your narrative voice, and serve a thematic introduction to the rest of the story. That’s a lot of pressure to place on your first scene, which is why many people wait until they’ve written their whole book before returning to their opening lines. Once you’re deeper into your first draft, you’ll likely have a better sense of your themes, characters, and point of view, and you can revisit the first line with a fresh perspective.
  2. An introduction to the main character: A great opening usually contains an introduction to the main character. The success of your novel or short story will ultimately be decided by your reader’s ability to engage or identify with your protagonist. By the end of the first chapter of your novel, the reader should have a basic sense of who your main character is and be eager to follow their journey into the second chapter.
  3. An introduction to the antagonist: A great main character is defined by their relationship to the antagonist. The antagonist will introduce challenges and obstacles that your protagonist must overcome, helping them grow in the process. This conflict should be introduced—or at least foreshadowed—in chapter one. Your antagonist may not necessarily be a specific character; it might be the government, society as a whole, or an element of the character’s internal being. Either way, the reader should have a sense of what the protagonist is up against by the end of the opening chapter.
  4. A vivid setting: When a reader opens your novel for the first time, they want to immediately feel a sense of place. That means including sensory details that allow them to experience the sights, sounds, and smells that your protagonist is experiencing. That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to explicitly identify your setting right off the bat. If your novel takes place in New York, for instance, you might include the blur of city lights and the sound of honking taxis. This will help give the setting a sense of immediacy and immerse the reader in the world of your story without going too deep into world-building.
  5. An inciting incident: When it comes to writing fiction, nothing will propel your reader onward quite like a world-changing event for your protagonist, which is why the inciting incident should appear as early as possible. The inciting incident is the engine for your story, providing a starting point for your main character’s journey and their eventual arc. Readers may start reading because of your unique voice or distinct POV, but they will continue reading only if your inciting incident is exciting enough to drive them forward.
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