Warning: Hacks for Hacks tips may have harmful side effects on your writing career, and should not be used by minors, adults, writers, poets, scribes, scriveners, journalists, or anybody.
The first chapter of a novel determines whether readers will stick with you or throw your book across the room. And don’t think they’ll give your next book a chance if they thought the first one sucked. I guess you could say that Chapter 1 will literally make or break your entire writing career, and anything less than perfection will ruin your chances of publication. Here’s how you can write a flawless first chapter.
- Raise the stakes. I mean for you, personally. I wasn’t kidding when I said this chapter could earn you fame and fortune, or sabotage your whole career. Now, check your heart rate. Place a postage stamp on the back of your neck. If it absorbed enough flop sweat that you can stick it to an SASE, your mind is ready to start writing. It’s not desperation, it’s INSPIRATION!
- Introductions. It’s time for your readers to meet your characters. Where do they work? What are they wearing? What’s their favorite food? What are their crippling insecurities? What do they want? This information is all just preamble to the burning question all readers have: Are they now, or have they ever been, a member of the Communist party.
- Promises, promises. A first chapter is about making promises to the reader—about characters reaching their goals, about guns on the mantlepiece that will be fired in Act III, about murders that will be solved, about romances that will come to fruition. Readers are busy, and they just got new books and video game systems for Christmas, so if you want them to make time for your book, you’ve got to promise them the moon, the stars, and a space ship to take them there. It’s okay if you have no idea how you’ll keep those promises. You’re a writer, after all, and by your very nature you’re good at making crazy promises you have no hope of keeping. That’s a problem for Future You, who will despise Present You for painting them into a corner like that. But that’s a problem for another day!
- What’s your type? There are two types of stories: A person goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town. That’s it. Those are the only two possibilities. Declare your allegiance in the very first paragraph or we’ll know you’re an amateur.
- Product placement. Mention your protagonist’s favorite soda or what car they drive. This will pay off down the road with lucrative endorsement deals when they make a movie of your book.
- Setting. Don’t go overboard and bore us by describing every knob on your kitchen cabinets. Set the scene by focusing on a few punchy details, such as the dining room table made from reclaimed poplar from Grandad’s old barn, or the recycling bin overflowing with empty cans of delicious Coke Zero.
Your character’s backstory, family history, and personal worldview. No, I’m not suggesting you stop the action of your story and insert a dreaded infodump. On the contrary, you can imply all of this information efficiently by mentioning that character’s zodiac sign and 23 and Me results.
- A mysterious letter. What could it be? Who is it from? This letter, still unopened, can be your escape hatch if your story takes a wrong turn and you need an instant plot development. Is it a treasure map? A letter from a long-lost love? The possibilities are—oh, it’s an offer to refinance your mortgage.
- A spooky ghost. Ghosts are all around us at all times. You don’t have to include them on the page, but neither you nor your characters should forget that they are there in your story. Watching. Waiting. This applies to spiders, too.
- A subliminal message. Get inside virtually everyone’s mind, enabling mentally optimized, neurally encoded yarns.
If you include all of these elements, you’ll have everything you need for a dynamite first chapter. If you thought this was fun, just wait until it’s time to write the ending, where all the choices you made in Chapter 1 must come to fruition or else the hundreds of hours of writing that preceded it were all for nothing. I bet you can’t wait!
What’s your secret to writing a killer first chapter? Share your advice in the comments section!
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