Hey everyone! So, I’ve had this question for quite some time now, and I’ve heard so many different answers and read so many different strategies and ideas and plans, but I wanted to get some more advice. Obviously, the first few chapters of your book are crucial for readers, so my biggest question, is how can you hook readers in the beginning of your story, so they’ll want to keep reading? I know that you have to be careful with how many characters you introduce, so you don’t confuse them, but I’ve also heard about starting the first chapter with the “status quo.” Essentially, you start the chapter with the way the main character’s life is on a normal day, and within chapters 2-4 you start to introduce the major plot line and how their life is going to change. I’m concerned with starting the story at the status quo though, because I feel like it might seem boring for readers. I don’t know, what advice do you all have?
I think even if you start with the “status quo”, it doesn’t need to be boring. I think thats a mistake people often make when they think their character’s ‘status quo’ is boring but are about to shove them into an interesting plot, which is why we are so frequently treated to the morning alarm clock ritual opening scene.
You could start off with conflict in the character’s life, showing why the status quo has to change. This makes us invested in waiting to see how that needed change will happen.
You could start off by establishing other characters or relationships that are important to the character. This makes us care about the characters since we see they care about each other.
You could start off by showing us their status quo is unique, so we are more interested in the character. Such as an interesting hobby or job the character is in the middle of.
You could make that “boring” status quo interesting by having the character point it out and make fun of their own situation, so we relate to the character.
You could start just by showing us something the character cares about, so we are more invested in the character protecting that ‘thing’ when the plot starts.
I am hooked by interesting characters or something that happens that makes me want to stick around and read further. If the character is boring right off the bat, its a good indicator their story will be boring. But if the character is engaging, even if their environment is boring, I will stick around to see what they do.
Wow! I never really thought of it that way, but I like the idea of showing something the character cares about or an interesting hobby/job they have. I guess my concern is just what if the readers don’t necessarily click or relate with the “unique” opening scene that I choose, but maybe that’s just me getting into my head a little too much.
Unfortunately, as a starting writer I have been guilty of using the morning alarm clock scene, hahahaha, but it was one of the first things I also learned to fix as emerging writer. Anyways, thank you so much for you advice, it was super helpful!
I’m usually not too concerned with what’s happening on the first chapter as long as it isn’t the standard cliches (waking up, introductions, philosophical and intricate details). I love being introduced to the character’s voice right away. Their personality, right form the start. And it has to be consistant- they can’t be brooding and philosophical first chapter and then happy-go-lucky the next. I want to know who this character is, that I’ll be following for the next 200+ pages. If they’re generally snarky, maybe a first chapter demonstrating a lot of clever quips and witty banter. If they’re a happy-go-lucky daredevil, maybe start with them running away from a bunch of guards after pulling an Aladdin.
I like getting to know the character.
I love a character’s voice, too. I want to know what they are thinking. I love characters with snarky attitudes in thought and express them to the reader. That creates an action in itself, and keeps the story interesting. You can have a sad drama, and the character have comical thoughts about things to lighten the mood. So if you begin on the dramatic event, the character themselves makes the story enjoyable. and I also love descriptions. Not the- I look like this and my hair is this long, and I put my eyeshadow on like this- but
descriptions tied into the act of-
My sister pounded on the door for the tenth time, and I scrambled into my jeans when the door opened and slammed against the wall. The smallest rip near the ankle now possessed a hole the size of my foot-
Those pull me in as a reader and I get to know the MC.
I have pretty low standards for a first chapter I just need it to be:
- free from grammar and spelling errors
- not cliché
- have an MC that’s not unlikeable
- establish at least one character
and that’s it, I guess. The story has just started, so I don’t expect anything big to happen.
The “status quo” is a standard that is pretty universal across most genres and it works great if you execute it well, which some others have already given you great advice on. If you do decide you want to try something else, there are alternatives.
In medias res - which is really just a fancy way of saying start with the action. This is the kind of intro that will instantly hook in your reader if you can write it skillfully enough. First impressions are everything, so why not start with your character already in the state of heightened conflict? There are a couple of ways to do this:
inciting sequence: Sometimes you just need something to get the ball rolling. You see this in James Bond movies all the time. It’s also a common theme in mysteries, thrillers, and horror. Show the protagonist (or antagonist) doing something that sets the plot in motion. Perhaps the kingdom is being invaded, or a murder has just taken place, or the zombie apocalypse is underway. For drama, romance, etc. maybe have the main character doing something related to one of their hobbies. You get to see them in action right away, and maybe their future love interest is present as well, so this is how they meet.
flashback: A lot of stories will begin with a character in a troubled position, which segues into a flashback, a sort of “how did we get here” kind of thing. The flashback becomes the main story. Then, once the entire story plays out, you see the same scene again in a whole new light, and maybe it isn’r what you thought it was at all, or maybe the ultimate outcome surprises the reader. In this way, you can give the reader a bit of a teaser; and also give them certain expectations that will be challenged and/or overthrown altogether. This can work in just about any genre.
Dream Sequence: Okay, this is probably way too cliche, and it tends to lead into the alarm clock trope, but it doesn’t have to be. There are many creative ways to use dream or out of body sequences. Perhaps make it a daydream or hallucination instead if you don’t like the “dream then wake up” motif. Dream sequences are good for more moody, introspective stories because they reveal the heart and soul of your charscter without them actually telling it to you or interacting with others. It’s all taking place in their mind. Dreams can show aspirations, hopes, fears, and can foreshadow things to come (though your audience may or may not realize it at the time). Sometimes instead of a true dream state, your character can instead be in some form of semiconscious, the place between dreams and reality.
So those are just some suggestions
“I know what you’re thinking, another average day for an average Joe like me. Well little did I know that my average life was about to be turned completely upside down…”
The only exception I could see is if they’re happy in the early chapters and then something awful happens and it breaks them to the point where they become brooding and depressed / philosophical. But even then, there needs to be a good explanation of this process. Like they shouldn’t just go from “I’m the happiest person alive” to “I hate my life”. We should see the process, the internal monologue in their mind, we should be able to feel and empathize with them. It makes them easier to root for.
The type of opening that will make me click out instantly are the “My name is Belynda, I have curly brown hair and glasses…” or openings that have more than a paragraph or two of exposition “This is my third year as a Uber driver. I like my job blah blah blah.” I’d prefer it if they’d show that she’s an Uber driver by having her pick up an annoying/drunk/rude passenger, and show that she likes her job by having her not get too irritated with them.
Another put off is excessive telling. I say excessive because I’ll barely notice it if there’s a small amount. Like, I’m cool with a few "She was angry"s in a story. But, if you summarize an entire relevant, potentially interesting conversation or situation, I’ll probably click out.
Some other things that might make me click out are false promises, like the dream opening mentioned above. The dream could be really exciting and eventful, but after it’s over, we’re dumped back into regular-old real life. Another thing in the same vein are prologues that focus on and attach you to a character that we won’t see again in five plus chapters. It’s a little jarring when you assume the prologue character is the main, only to find out that they’re not.
What catches me the best is a strong lead character. An interesting character can pull me through the story, even if we start off with the boringish Uber driver scene above.
Or, a situation that makes me ask questions. Not something that’s off the rails confusing, but something that intrigues and makes me wonder about things. Don’t give me every little detail, give me some room to infer a few things on my own.
That’s comforting to know you’re not too concerned with the first chapter, haha. I always for some reason feel that the first chapter of the book is a make or break for the reader, but I like these ideas of developing the character’s voice and internal monologue. I usually focus on the events happening in the first chapter, so this is great advice!
Okay, so the idea of showing more vs. telling, I guess? I like that, it’s always something I try to strive for. I like how you told me all the things you DON’T like in a first chapter and that might put you off as a reader, that way I can look for that in my own chapter!
I have heard of most of these types of openings, but the explanations you gave were super helpful! Thank you!!! I am a romance novelist, so I have always found it intriguing to start in medias res, but I’ve never tried it because I just feel like it’s so difficult for that kind of novel. Who knows, maybe I can give it a shot!
I’m just glad I could help
It would certainly be unique in a romance novel. I’ve never written a story that was just romance, it’s always romance plus another genre like mystery, thriller etc., which allowed me to be more creative with my openings. I would love to see a romance starting in medias res though, that would be really cool
What hooks me on the first chapter of a book is quite blatantly, a hook. Give me a good character, an exciting plot, an engaging theme. I want all the first threads of a brilliant story. Being a writer, I find I also mostly care about writing, structuring, and grammar rather then the actual entertainment of the story.
The biggest thing that turns me off in a story is infodumping. Especially, irrelevant info dumping or just irrelevant anything that doesn’t matter to the story’s themes or character growth. It can be hooking, but it needs to matter to the overall story, for it to really hook me in, personally.
So, the first thing to do is pour out your plot. You must know at least some things about your character, world etc, to make your opening chapter compelling. After pouring out your plot, identify the character your following. Identify her likes, dislikes, what she’s most likely to comment on, most importantly, what her journey will be and what fatal flaw you wanna zoom on. Lastly, identify your hook. This’s going to form the meat of your opening chapter. The hook always comes as a question, and if you’re not identifying that question, then your opening chapter falls flat. So, now that you have all the ingredients assembled, let’s get writing.
A) Identify whether you want your opening chapter to be character or plot oriented. I’ll start with one of my favourite books, six of crows, where the writer was very clearly interested in making her book plot oriented. She introduces and arbitrary character who only serves to create some worldbuilding here and there before being killed off by the main mcguffin of the plot. However, in Percy Jackson, you have Percy being put in a situation that is very specific to himself and the plot and by the end of the first chapter, you have a good background of his life and his goals.
B) Establish the stakes. This will be very important in step C, but also important to help establish a sense of character and story. If the stakes are flunking in school, then the audience will know this is a school-based story. If the stakes are being saddled with a mysterious magical nephew whose family you swore to never have anything to do with, then the audience will know the book is Harry Potter. Also, not everyone cares about the same things. If Percy was a different person, he wouldn’t have cared so muvh about getting kicked out of school. If a fundamental part of uncle vernon’s character had not been his love for ordinary routine, then he wouldn’t have cared whether or not a cat appeared to be reading a map. (Just noticed that this was brought up some time before in a wonderful reply by @M_and_S. Thank you!)
C) Accelarate your conflict. If your opening chapter starts with your MC getting some tea with her friends and then packing up her school bags to leave by the last line you’re doing something wrong. (Unless she’s packing up her school bags in tears after she’s kicked out of her friend’s friend group after a huge argument revolving around her sick mom.) Think Percy Jackson, where Percy started off trying to keep his cool in the face of devil peanut butter sandwitches and ended up vaporising his teacher by the final line. Think Harry Potter where uncle vernon left his house mildly peeved that a cat had the audacity to be weird enough to appear to be reading a nap and finished chapter one with a magical nephew at his doorstep. Think six of crows where Joost started off stressing about a pickup line and ended up as a former husk of his soul. Actually, if you pick up on it, every opening scene has an accelarating conflict. Now, your accelarating conflict, like any accelarating anything, has two key elements. A road, and a speed limit. Your road will be your hooking question. Will Uncle Vernon’s day get any weider. Will Joost land that hot, hot, date. Your speed limit will be your stakes. I cannot stress the importance of establishing stakes early. JK Rowling needed to establish Uncle Vernon’s love of routine for the audience to understand Uncle Vernon’s panic when he turned on the news to see shooting stars. Rick Riordan needed to establish that Percy was kicked out of six schools in six years for the audience to go oooh, when he vaporised his teacher. If you don’t establish your stakes WELL you’ll have an emotionally disengaged audience, and people going ‘this went from 0-100 really fast.’ Because, here was your MC just chilling out, and now he’s executed?
there’s months of research all in one post, haha.
I know, right?
Thinking about my favorite sorts of stories, it kind of begins comfortably naive, you know? The MC is going about their daily lives, and it shows the problems they’re dealing with before the exposition takes off, and how they’re handling it. I guess maybe just semi-mundane ‘in the life’ experiences with the MC that establishes who they are in quite, soft ways.
Definitely a good hook and having the first chapter be like an appetizer in a sense. Set up and hint what the character will be in for and what things will be reoccurring throughout. (Like themes and so forth)