Right the first time: the importance of a great first chapter

By Jennifer Shenouda

Blame it on the curse of first impressions.

First chapters are kind of like speed dating, in that it often takes a person only a couple of minutes to decide if they’re truly interested in what you have to say.

You might have a really great book underneath it all, but if you don’t grab them at hello, they’re gone for good.

Young Adult mystery writer Amanda Brice is no stranger to process of toiling over her own first chapters until they are just right so we asked her for her thoughts on writing them, and what it takes to make a first chapter really stick:

How important is the first chapter of a book to you?

We can talk all we want about the traditional publishing world and the inherent unfairness of industry pros who might not read beyond the first paragraph, but the fact of the matter is that if your opening paragraph doesn’t excite your reader to read more, you have work to do.

Whether you are traditionally published or made your book available through Kobo Writing Life, it’s the readers who matter, and they’re most likely going to sample your e-book before they buy. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve stumbled upon a book that looked great from the blurb and cover, but I couldn’t make it past the first few pages. It very well might have gotten much better, but I’ll never know.

What’s the first rule of the first chapter?

Set the tone and stick to it. Light and funny? Dark and dramatic? Keep me on the edge of my seat? Whatever you get in the first chapter should be representative of the rest of the book.

How do come up with those grabby first few lines of your books?

I like first lines that are funny and memorable, with just enough quirkiness that I need to keep reading to figure out what the author means. My all-time favorite is from author Alesia Holliday (you’d probably know her better as New York Times Bestselling Author Alyssa Day) in Seven Ways to Lose Your Lover: “In case you’ve ever wondered, desperation smells exactly like purple passion fruit warming body oil: fruity and a little rancid.” Isn’t that just awesome? If I recall correctly, I snorted Diet Coke all over the pages of that book when I read that.

My favorite of my own first paragraphs comes from my upcoming YA time travel, Party Like It’s 1899: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single girl in possession of very little fortune should lust over designer shoes. And if only I’d bought those cherry red peep toe pumps at Galeries Lafayette, the most unbelievable event of my entire seventeen years never would have happened.”

Once that line popped into my head, I realized that I had to go with it, so the first line of every chapter is a paraphrase of the opening line of a well-known book. It was a lot of fun to rewrite so many classics, and makes for a fun little Easter egg hunt for my readers.

What are your tips for writing first chapters? What works? What doesn’t?

Everyone is different, but I spend a huge amount of time plotting out the entire book and thinking about that first chapter. I can’t write from the seat of my pants,  I have to know all the steps from Point A to Point Z. By the time I’ve finished plotting, I’ve pretty much directed the entire opening scene in my head. I can see what happens, where it happens, and why it happens, and then it’s easy to just sit down and write.

What’s the best thing about writing a first chapter?

First chapters are always exciting for me, because since they’re the very first thing I write, I’m writing them at the start of the process, when I’m still excited and totally in love with the new idea. (Before I’ve gotten to the middle where I start to hate everything about my work-in-progress. I think middles should be banned, don’t you?)

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amandabriceAbout the author:

PasDeDeathAmanda Brice leads a double life. By day she’s an intellectual property attorney for a large federal government agency in the Washington DC area. At night she juggles raising a preschooler and an infant with writing novels for teens, including the mysteries Codename: Dancer, Pointe of No Return, and Pas De Death. Her YA time travel series will be launched this fall. She is a two-time Golden Heart finalist and the president of Washington Romance Writers.

Please visit Amanda at www.amandabrice.net.

Check out Amanda’s books on Kobo here.

10 comments

  • Right you are, Amanda.

    The first chapter ought to be a hook. It’s that shiny, shiny bit of bait that leads that reader to gulp down the next chapter and the chapter after that.

    It’s a first date. You want your reader to fall in love with your words. You want them to feel your passion. You want them to commit to your work.

    It’s a job interview. You write that first chapter with enough charm and allure and that reader is going to hire your storytelling skills by slapping that money down and buying your book – your next book and the book after that.

    I think it was Mickey Spillane that said that your first chapter sells the book and the last chapter will sell the next one.

    Thanks for the good words.

  • Pingback: Right the first time: the importance of a great first chapter | YOURS IN STORYTELLING...

  • Oh, I LOVE the opening lines of Party Like It’s 1899! What a great hook!

  • Oh, I LOVE the opening of Party Like It’s 1899! What a great, funny hook!

  • I couldn’t agree more with Amanda said (you too Steve).

  • Excellent post, Amanda and so true. The first chapter is crucial. It’s where the readers meet our characters at the moment where their normal life is turned upside down, we set the tone for the entire book, and make the readers a story promise of a satisfied ending. Wishing you every success!

  • Jennifer, thanks for inviting me!

    I often see writers say something like “I know my manuscript starts slow, but that’s just the opening. It gets much better!”

    No. It doesn’t get better. OK, fine, it might. But for all intents and purposes, it doesn’t, because you’ve already lost that reader. Life’s too short to read boring books, so if something doesn’t grab me almost right away, I just don’t continue.

    When I was a newer writer, I used to use the first two or three chapters as my “warming up” period. I had to write through the first chapter to get it all out, and then later I realized that the book actually started at chapter 3. I see this as a common mistake when judging unpublished writer contests.

    Here are some craft of writing books that might help:
    THE FIRST FIVE PAGES by Noah Lukeman
    SAVE THE CAT by Blake Snyder
    SELLING YOUR STORY IN 60 SECONDS by Michael Hague

    The latter two are actually screenwriting, but the techniques are applicable.

  • Great advice, Amanda! Well stated! Openings are always a challenge and have to serve many purposes. I love the 3 writing books you suggested – they are so very helpful!

  • I think middles should be banned too. 🙂 Great interview, Amanda.

  • I agree with Elisa. Your opening line in PARTY LIKE ITS 1899 is wonderful. You really give the reader an impression of what fun they are in for. Plus, the title is perfect. Great interview and spot on advice.

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