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Writing the First Chapter of a Novel

May 17, 2020
May 17, 2020

If you’re wondering how to write the first chapter of a novel, we can relate. It’s a big question!

After all, the first chapter of a novel needs to do some heavy lifting to start the story. But there’s no need to panic! Once you realise what the duties of a novel's first chapter are, it all becomes much simpler.

Key components of the first chapter of a novel

A big part of writing the very beginning of your novel is bringing in all the things that will hook a reader to your story.

Is your opening currently fulfilling these purposes?:

  • Putting your reader into the world (location/setting/time period)
  • Posing a question the reader wants to get an answer for (create mystery or intrigue)
  • Introducing the main character
  • Setting the mood
  • Kickstarting the plot development (your inciting incident)

Questions your first chapter can answer

When a reader starts a book, the possibilities are almost literally infinite.

Whatever genre you’re writing in, no matter how wacky or avant garde your book, when you’re thinking about how to write a first chapter, you’ll almost always want to provide answers to some basic questions and ground your readers. Give them a foothold in this world of infinite possibilities.

There are some basic questions that the first chapter of a novel should answer. Think of this as something of a first chapter checklist:

  • Where and when are we – some light world building
  • Who are the major players? Who is the main character?
  • What’s the point of view (first person or third person? Who is the narrator?)
  • What’s the story’s larger moral and cultural setting?

There’s nothing wrong with just flat out declaring this information at the start of a narrative. I find that people are enormously reluctant to do this. I am no longer so reluctant.
—Justin Cronin

Learning how to write a first chapter from screenplays

The author Justin Cronin says he struggled with understanding how stories work, until he found a guide on writing screenplays which explained there are two big plot points in a story.

The first is the moment of disruption and the second is its match towards the back end of the story – a disruption via an event which takes the story towards the possibility of an outcome. In a way, a story could be seen as:

  1. The state of rest (before the disruption)
  2. Unrest
  3. A new altered state of rest (after the second disruption)

The first disruption – when it occurs – signals the beginning of the story. This is typically where the first chapter of a novel will commence.

Other things to include in a first chapter

‘Where are we’ is a base most first chapters will cover – often in the first sentence. ‘Who we are’ is also usually disclosed within the first chapter, if not the very first scene. But often, writers use their openings to establish one or two other things:

  • The problem with the status quo
  • The disruption (which changes things, ideally which changes everything and drives the story forward)

The second point won’t necessarily come up in the first chapter, but it’s often a good idea to get to it as soon as possible, and definitely within the first few chapters.

writing the first chapter
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Famous examples of first chapters in novels

When we’re thinking about how to write our first chapters, it can be inspiring to see how it’s done in some of the great novels. So let’s look at the information famed authors drop in their first chapter, and the order they drop each piece. You’ll see how they grab, and keep, the reader’s attention.

The first chapter of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

Before you start writing your opening, it can be helpful to look at chapter one of the bestselling book by Gail Honeyman.

In its first few pages, the facts are presented in a straightforward voice. The first-person narrative is achieved with a wry, slightly snobbish dry tone of voice. It’s almost elderly – reminiscent of Hyacinth Bucket from the British TV sitcom Keeping Up Appearances.

Crucially, the tone is immediately set up as defensive, right from the very first sentence. As a result, we have the two key aspects of a first-person narrative delivered at speed: attitude and self-deception. Honeyman shows us her protagonist’s perspective on how she defends herself against the world, and the falsehood she maintains to stay safe.

So how did Honeyman ensure she got readers interested right away? From the first page, Honeyman established a gap between Eleanor’s stance and reality, creating the intrigue which draws a reader into a first-person novel.

We learn Eleanor presents herself as, and consider herself to be, ‘superior’, while the reality of her life is lowly.

This distance between reality and truth isn’t just impactful in the case of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine! It could be a helpful tool as you set about writing the first chapter of your novel, as it allows for dramatic irony in almost any close character-driven fiction.

Why and how Honeyman’s approach works

Let’s do some close analysis of the novel’s first chapter, and see why it’s such a great opening.

When people ask me what I do – taxi drivers, dental hygienists – I tell them I work in an office. In almost nine years, no one’s ever asked what kind of office or what sort of job I do there. I can’t decide whether that’s because I fit perfectly with their idea of what an office worker looks like, or whether…

Paragraph 1 tells us who we are. It alludes to the ‘privacy’ that the anonymity of the office job provides.

Paragraph 2 delves into the details of who we are, creating a compelling character right away. It sets up the status quo, age and education, and how they are at odds with her position. Here, the attitude we get to experience through the first-person narrative is crucial.

Paragraph 3 starts to set up where we are, outlining the story setting and our main character’s place within it.

Paragraph 4 discloses the broader context by laying out Eleanor’s day-to-day routine at work.

Paragraph 5 continues this, showing us her routine at home.

Paragraph 6 is a further elaboration of this, progressing into her typical evenings (and the conversations with Mummy on Wednesday).

Paragraph 7 lets us see another angle of the larger moral and cultural setting as we learn of Eleanor’s dysfunctional weekends and heavy drinking.

Paragraph 8 tells us that the privacy masks the apparent problem of loneliness: ‘I do exist, don’t I? It often feels as if I’m not here, that I’m a figment of my own imagination.’

Paragraph 9 expands the cast that answers who we are and tells us about Eleanor’s coping strategy as we see the people populating her working week.

The middle section of the first chapter offers more backstory and shows the ‘lie’: the attention-seeking with doctor. Note how this is given in dialogue to keep it active.

Then we get to the really important part of writing a first chapter.

The change

That was yesterday morning, in a different life.

The last three paragraphs can now explore the pivotal disruption. We get to the arrival of ‘husband material’, and the opportunity it gives Eleanor to please her mother (the hidden problem).

The first chapter of My Sister the Serial Killer

Now, let’s look at an example of a first chapter in a different genre. Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister the Serial Killer shows us one great way to open a thriller.

The chapters of this book are very short indeed – in fact, they’re more like scenes. That keeps the story moving quickly, but it also means the disruption that changes everything (the inciting incident) doesn’t come until after the first chapter.

Interestingly, here too, that disruption comes in the form of a love interest. The serial killing is given as the status quo, the rest before the disruption.

So what are some of the aspects Braithwaite incorporated when writing the first chapter of this bestselling novel?

  1. Bleach and blood, life and death (after all, this is a thriller)
  2. The setting: a male bathroom
  3. An ‘out of focus’ main character in Ayoola (an interesting example to consider in the context of the distant, charismatic hero)
  4. Our narrator’s status quo: tiredness
  5. The apparent problem: her contented life interrupted by sister’s killings
  6. Her immediate concern: to move the body (again, we get a clear view of her attitude thanks to the first-person narrative)
  7. Emotional connection (who we are): her sister’s imprecation/ dependence on her (here we see delusion through the first-person narrative)
  8. Her coping strategy: care (as shown by the leadership role she takes on)
  9. The practical problem: the body in the boot of the car
  10. The location: Lagos
  11. The revelation that this is not the first time, this is the constant situation (this status quo is so unusual it’s worth reiterating!)
  12. Her role as cleaning lady supporting her sister’s ‘work’ with an expert solution (born of experience and likely to continue unless there is a disruption)

Writing exercises to nail your first chapter

As you work on your writing process, take the advice well-evidenced here and work through these important aspects in your first chapter if you can (and you can!).

To get you started, try writing a first paragraph or paragraphs which summarise each of these six essential components:

Six key components to engage readers with your opening scene when writing fiction

When you come to writing the first chapter of your novel, remember that the order in which you give these basic story elements is not important. That’s where your flair as ‘chef d’oeuvres’ comes in!

But usually, you’ll want to ensure these ingredients do appear in your first chapter (or at least within a few chapters of your opening).

As a further writing exercise, why not have a play with applying the ABA format – so deftly used in Sally Rooney's Normal People: Action/Backstory/Action.

The problems when writing the first chapters of novels

Now, look back over the six ingredients. Notice that ‘The Problem’ has another sticky note behind it?

Here’s where it gets interesting – and elegant.

In our three sample chapters, the apparent or suggested problem is not the real problem.

Thing One and Thing Two

new writers can make a great first impression for their story with these final tips

There are two problems in the first chapter of a novel, typically served in this order:

1. Thing One: our main character’s immediate and apparent problem

  • Eleanor’s loneliness
  • Korede’s resentment of her services to her sister

These problems are served straight up, on the rocks. All very interesting no doubt, the author seems to say.

2. Thing Two: the hidden real problem to which our main character is blind, but which the reader and author can decipher

  • Eleanor’s mental trauma caused by her mother’s violence
  • The threat of male disruption of vital female alliances

Each of these surfaces in the first chapter, but in a form which shows it’s currently a blind spot for the main character. She or he is not seeing the truth of matters. This will become the central conflict for the whole book.

The last line of the first chapter of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine: ‘Mummy was going to be thrilled.’

The last line of the first chapter of My Sister, the Serial Killer: ‘Ayoola could never clean up as efficiently as I can.’

Both problems – overt and covert – are overcome in a showdown or conflict at the second event per the screenwriting model.

How the problems connect with each other

At the outset, we have Thing One in play: the immediate problem, along with the dominant conceit or self-deception (the lie). These appear before the first disruption occurs.

Thing Two emerges for a showdown with Thing One at the second event in a story of two principal events.

Let’s recap how this functions when you’re writing the first pages of a novel:

  1. A first disruption of the status quo or resting state
  2. A second event which replaces the old state with a new state. This addresses the real problem through conflict at the site of its tension – the two opposing forces behind this second event

Thing Two is at the heart of your theme.

The line between Thing One and Thing Two, and the first and second event (i.e. the showdown or conflict) is the narrative tension, the story arc.

In our examples, these could be charted as the moves:

  • From loneliness to facing the mental trauma of abuse
  • From subservience to acceptance of loyalty to female kind

Putting it into practice as you write your first chapter

This format for the beginning of a novel might make your task simpler. You can see your two posts, and the wire between them.

So for your first chapter, you will need the overt problem and the covert problem. Remember that your main character is blind to the latter at the outset!

The second problem in particular will be addressed through the plot in the rest of the book, with as much violence as is necessary for it to be overcome.

Go, you Gods, find Thing One and Thing Two, and put the world to rights.

Should you write a prologue before your first chapter?

A note on prologue: it is not a first chapter

Prologues are more succinct, and function more as an adjunct to the blurb. They must raise a gripping question that the rest of the book will tackle. They’re designed to hook readers with an inciting event and often a strong voice.

If you want to find out more about writing a prologue for a novel or how to start a story, be sure to check out our guides!

Want to write a book with daily support like this, timed to coincide with the writing of your novel? Think guidance via one-to-one sessions with your chosen writing coach would be valuable? Then sign up for The Novel Kickstarter Course! It’s wise to invest in professional support, and it’s smart to back yourself.

Someone writing in a notebook
Members of The Novelry team