Writer’s Tip: How To Make Compelling First Chapters

By Acquisitions Editor Jess Cohn

Everyone has had a favorite book that when they cracked open the spine, smoothed out the first page, and starting reading, they just couldn’t stop. The first chapter sucked them in and carried them all the way to the last snap of closing the book. And I bet they wondered “How?” How did the first chapter make them keep reading? There’s no formula for writing a compelling first chapter, but there are tricks you can use to captivate your readers and get them to crave more.

The function of a first chapter is to draw the reader in and get them to continue on to chapter two, chapter three, and so on. If the book is fiction, you need to establish who the main character is, the point of view, give snippets of the conflict, and establish the setting—all without an overload of exposition. Easy, right? Not always. So here’s a tip: don’t have your character wake up at the beginning of the chapter. Instead, show them doing a normal task like washing dishes, chatting with a friend, or eating breakfast with the family. That way you’re not immediately launched into the conflict of the book, but you’re introduced to the character(s) and have a chance to establish a good sense of voice. If your book is in an abnormal world where monsters rule the streets, well, what’s their normal?

For nonfiction titles, a compelling first chapter is even harder to write. Depending on the subgenre, first decide on what point of view the book will be in. First person doesn’t always work for business books, just like third person isn’t great for memoirs. Once you have that, establish the why of the book. Why do the readers need to continue reading? What are you planning on teaching them or helping them with? Making sure readers know this right off the bat sets up the rest of the book for them. Don’t overload it with statistics, but instead open the book as if you’re going to have a conversation with a friend. This works for almost every subgenre except memoir. For that, follow rules more aligned with fiction.

As an Acquisitions Editor, there are three main things I look for in a first chapter:

  1. Originality
  2. How the author established voice, and
  3. The ultimate question: Do I want to keep reading?

If the book is a concept that’s been done before (like zombies, for example), what’s the author’s take on it? If it’s a nonfiction topic that has a lot of books published on it (like politics), how does the author make the book different? The author’s voice needs to come across clearly and their style should be evident on the first page. I should realize that I want to read this book—or better yet, that I need to read it. My job is to find books that readers are going to love, and that always starts with the first chapter.

My best advice to you, dear writer, is to ask for opinions on your first chapter. Whether it’s from family, friends, or strangers you meet on the Internet, they’ll tell you if they want to keep reading. No matter what area of publishing you decide to pursue (hybrid, traditional, or self), a compelling first chapter will do your book a world of good.

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