First Impressions Count: How to Write a Great First Chapter

In many walks of life, first impressions are critical to success. Job interviews, dates, you name it. This is also the case in a book. Humans are reactionary creatures, and if they find themselves put-off by something in the first five minutes, it’s likely that they won’t continue.

They might have been drawn to your book by an expertly designed cover, or a well-penned blurb devised by a marketing team, but once they open that first page, it’s all you. It’s fairly critical that you make a great impression in your very first chapter, and we wanted to share some tips and tricks to help you on your way.

#1: Immerse the Reader

From the get-go, you need to establish your setting, even if it will change later on. If you want your reader to feel like a fly on the wall in the world you have created, you must meticulously paint a picture of it. Take your time with descriptive language and think about how you process the environments you find yourself in. Smells- are they pungent or pleasant? Old or new? Nostalgic or unfamiliar? Do you feel comfortable in this setting, or do you feel uneasy, even a sense of threat? These are all things to consider when immersing your reader. Depending on the perspective (first, second or third person), you can really dig deep.

#2: Create Intrigue

It is important to set up a means for more chapters to follow the first one. Your first chapter should aim to establish the atmosphere that heralds the oncoming storm (or dilemma) that will unfold as the book goes on. If your very first chapter is just a mundane means for your readers to meet your chief character in a setting or time frame that bears no relevance at all to the rest of the story, then you’re probably going to find that people will give up on your book quite early. It is completely acceptable for your book to burn slowly, but maybe light that long wick after your dynamite first chapter.

Let’s examine the first chapter of Stephen Graham Jones’ 2021 horror novel “My Heart is a Chainsaw”. In the foremost chapter, Jones writes a scene depicting two Dutch tourists who are murdered by an unknown assailant. We know from Jones’s descriptions that this is the primary setting of the book. In the very next chapter, we are introduced to our protagonist, and the slow-burning worldbuilding commences. Because of the mystery-shrouded first chapter, we understand that the unseen killer is lurking somewhere in the town, and we know that at any second, they could strike. The mystery makes the worldbuilding all the more interesting to us, as we are in a state of constant speculation and suspense.

#3: Establish the Tone

The tone is absolutely critical to appealing to the reader, as it helps give them a sense of what the genre is. If you are penning a thriller, for instance, your tone should be dark and cold, examining the shady corners of the setting you have established. Conversely, if you are writing a romance novel, you may wish to adopt a slightly more humorous or relatable tone, describing the world through the eyes of the protagonist, inner-monologue and all.

26 Sep 2023