In an attempt to write a better first chapter of my novel, I’ve been looking for tips on opening chapters. While there are many good guidelines out there, much of the advice is short on concrete examples. So, I decided to do my own research by reading several successful novels, breaking them down, learning what they did right, and applying those lessons to my future work. I’ll share those lessons below.
I focused on novels from various genres that were either commercially or critically successful, and that were published in the past two decades. That time frame gives me a sense of what’s going on in the contemporary fiction market. I also borrowed some knowledge from other storytelling forms when applicable.
Some of these examples might contradict others — what works for one story might not work for another. Hopefully, though, these examples provide you with tools that make your opening chapter work better. This should help you write chapters that hook readers in a short amount of time, whether you’re looking for readers online or trying to make it out of the slush pile. I highly recommend reading the books I’ve referenced, whether or not the examples align with the archetype of your own opening chapter. Let’s dive in!
Overview of topics
Structure and Story Concept
- The start of a new life (American Gods)
- Starting with a bang (Saga)
- The high concept (The Hunger Games)
- Ask the right question (Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell)
Voice and Style
- Don’t give it all away (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone)
- The power of first-person narration (Life of Pi)
- Spontaneity and surprise (Cloud Atlas)
Introducing Worlds and Characters
- Building the world (Coraline)
- Sympathetic characters (The Road)
STRUCTURE AND STORY CONCEPT
The start of a new life
In a TV writing course I took a while ago, we learned that a common technique in pilot episodes is to introduce a protagonist at the start of a new life. A time of major transition in a character’s life is a way into the story world and conflict: starting a new job, moving into a new house/neighbourhood, going to a new school, life after divorce, life after a diagnosis, and so on. Characters following this kind of plot must adapt to the new life or new world. The story is about how they navigate this new world, whether or not they can maintain their sense of self despite adversity, and whether or not they can grow.
While there are huge differences between screenwriting and prose, the “start of a new life” trope is one that can indeed transfer over.
- Wonder by R. J. Palacio (new school)
- The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger (new job)
- The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon (new country)
- Coraline by Neil Gaiman (new house)
I also found this technique in another of Neil Gaiman’s books: American Gods. In the first chapter, the protagonist, Shadow, begins serving a three-year prison sentence. He has to adjust to the rhythms, restrictions, and culture of his new life — all while daydreaming about how he’ll live once he’s out. Midway through the chapter, he’s unexpectedly released early, so he’s thrust into his second new life: the life he looked forward to during his incarceration, a life he said would be different from his old life. As soon as he gets out, he experiences strange events that take him on a new path. That path constantly tests him to see if he’s as committed to changing as he said he was.
Starting with a bang
Here’s the polar opposite of the “start of a new life” technique, the classical technique of in medias res (“in the middle of the action”). It’s where the story drops us into the middle of an ongoing conflict. Examples include everything from Homer’s The Iliad (the most classic example) to the original Star Wars film (the Star Destroyer chasing Leia’s ship). Another great example from recent years is the first issue of the beloved comic-book series Saga.
Again, the form is different, but some lessons translate to prose. The opening puts the characters in an easy-to-understand situation of primal emotion: a woman giving birth. She’s in the back of a mechanic’s garage, an impromptu place for a delivery because she and her husband are fugitives from two different sides of a war. Once they successfully deliver the baby, they’re attacked by pursuers from their respective sides. They survive the ensuing shootout, which is the start of the core conflict driving the series: trying to raise a child while running from people who want to kill them.
The opening scene of Saga serves as the climax of an inciting incident that happened before the first page of the book. Only after the initial, simple scene do we learn of the larger world and story.
Don’t try to stuff all your setups into Chapter 1. Instead, figure out what kind of Chapter 1 you could write that would persuasively and sympathetically introduce readers to active characters and exciting, visible conflict. Write scenes that are built on bold, iconic imagery, then build out from there.
The high concept
A high concept is a plot-driven story idea that can be summarized in a catchy tagline or portrayed on a movie poster. For example, Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park is a high-concept story: “It’s Frankenstein but with dinosaurs.” Whether or not your story is built around a cute gimmick like that, it’s helpful to ask yourself what the one-sentence description of the story might be, how your first chapter brings that to life, and whether you’re executing your vision of the story effectively.
To that effect, let’s look at another popular media franchise that began with a novel: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. The high-concept premise at the heart of this story is: a starving teenage girl is forced by an evil regime into a deadly gladiator competition/reality show in which teens fight to the death; the last man standing (and their homeland) is showered with fame and food for a year.
In Chapter 1 of the novel, everything is set up to portray the effects of this high concept on the life of Katniss Everdeen. Thanks to the oppression of the Capitol, Katniss is starving, as are all the districts that failed in their rebellion against the Capitol. She fights a daily battle against hunger, by hunting. Successfully fighting hunger means she can successfully fight in the Hunger Games. Hunger is not a game to her, and either she dies in the arena or she dies of starvation in her regular life.
The main antagonist here is the government of the far-off Capitol. This is the true antagonist of the series, despite the majority of novel being about teens killing each other. Everything builds to the chapter’s climactic moment: the Reaping, when the participants of the Hunger Games are selected.
That climax is also when the high concept is stated in a lump of exposition. One paragraph in particular explains the rules of the Hunger Games, which to that point in the story had not been explicitly discussed:
The rules of the Hunger Games are simple. In punishment for the uprising, each of the twelve districts must provide one girl and one boy, called tributes, to participate. The twenty-four tributes will be imprisoned in a vast outdoor arena that could hold anything from a burning desert to a frozen wasteland. Over a period of several weeks, the competitors must fight to the death. The last tribute standing wins.
Because it’s describing the rules of a sport and what typically happens during the Games, it’s also a broad description of Katniss’ journey, so the entire plot of the book.
An interesting bit of trivia: that paragraph was the third-most highlighted passage of all books in the Kindle store (i.e. pretty much all books ever printed) as of about 2014. Granted, this data skews heavily toward the trilogy, since it was taken when The Hunger Games was at the height of popularity.
Regardless, that a paragraph of pure exposition became the third-most popular passage in fiction for (arguably) an entire generation shows how powerful this high concept was for readers — and for the entire publishing industry.
So it’s important to have an evocative premise, while also knowing how to bring that premise to life, and how to turn information into a compelling situation with a sympathetic character. Your first chapter brings to life the synopsis an agent or editor first reads in your query letter. Chapter 1 of The Hunger Games does exactly that. It’s a microcosm of the entire story, and gives us everything we need to know about its essential nature.
Ask the right question
Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell takes place in early 1800s England, during a time of reason, rationality, and science. In this world, magic existed many centuries prior but has since died out, left to the study of academics. One day, an earnest young scholar refuses to go along with the boring status quo. He goes on the hunt for the answer to a question, one he asks on Page 2: “What happened to magic in England?” What he’s really asking is: “Why isn’t there magic in the world?”
The narrator continues: “It was the question which, sooner or later, every child in the kingdom asks his governess or his schoolmaster or his parent.”
Like the scholar and like those children, we’re surrounded by tales of magic and fantasy, yet the real world doesn’t have anything like the magic in our tales. Readers yearn for a world where that kind of power, imagination and wonder are present; the best we can do is experience it vicariously through fiction. So wouldn’t it be great if someone were able to explain why the magic in our own folklore, religious traditions, and mythology is sorely missing from our lives?
Susanna Clarke has her characters investigate a question the reader might not even have been consciously aware they had, then names it out loud. It’s a question that’s fundamentally tied to the appeal of the fantasy genre itself. It’s a question that sets the characters on a journey, looking for an answer that matters to us as readers.
So, what unspoken questions is your opening chapter asking?
VOICE AND STYLE
Don’t give it all away
J. K. Rowling rewrote the opening three chapters of the first Harry Potter book about fifteen times before settling on the final version (which eventually got her a book deal). These chapters would be our introduction to a huge story world, so in theory she had a huge amount of information and exposition to get through. But as playwright David Mamet famously said about TV writing, “The audience will not tune in to watch information. The audience will only tune in and stay tuned to watch drama.”
So, in the final version of The Philosopher’s Stone, there’s very little exposition at all in the opening three chapters. Surprisingly, the words wizard or magic don’t appear in the first three chapters, either.
It’s in stark contrast to the opening of a novel like The Hunger Games. There, the arc of the story is flat-out told to us when the political history of the Games, and its annual script, are explained in Chapter 1.
But like The Hunger Games, the story of Harry Potter starts small. The focus is on one small corner of this large world, and on the everyday ups and downs of Harry’s life. Harry doesn’t learn plot-critical clues about horcruxes or hear jargon like “Avada Kedavra.” Instead, he meets goofy, talking Brazilian snakes.
This connects to the second point. The opening relies on Rowling’s voice as a storyteller, which has been compared to Roald Dahl. Since her voice echoes other writers in the genre, the writing conveys a sense of that genre and, therefore, a sense of the fantastic without her having to use specific tropes or exposition.
It’s not to say go copy your favourite writer. However, your voice can connote information in the reader’s mind even if the words themselves don’t do it.
The power of first-person storytelling
When Yann Martel won the Booker Prize for Life of Pi, I was living in Montreal — which is where Martel was said to live at the time. So, naturally, I would see people reading Life of Pi everywhere (on the bus, at cafés, etc.). Most people knew the book was about a boy stuck on a lifeboat with a tiger; some editions of the cover art even featured this image. Aside from the hometown appeal and the prize, we were attracted to the book by its premise. We picked up the book and started reading, but that premise doesn’t happen until about 100 pages in.
What’s interesting is that within the novel, the author (or a fictionalized version of him) is interviewing the protagonist (Pi) about the dramatic episode with the tiger. So fictional Yann Martel also heard about Pi’s story from a third party (just as we did). He then met Pi and asked him about it. Pi answered that question by taking over the story and telling it in first-person narration.
Of course, the world Pi describes is beautiful and wondrous. But it’s the intimacy of his first-person narration that keeps us engaged in the first 100 pages until the inciting incident kicks in. His narration has the feeling of a real-life form of storytelling: a conversation between two people. It recreates the vulnerability and intimacy that exists between people who are friends or confidants. It activates our empathy and our need to know the speaker is going to be OK — even though we know he lived to tell the tale. We’re not just spending time with a story, but with a person. The narration convinces us that this is someone we want to spend time with.
Spontaneity and surprise
David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is a difficult novel to talk about because of how spoilery even the vaguest description might be. That’s because so much of the experience of Cloud Atlas is built upon spontaneity and surprise. Suspension of disbelief is built on the illusion that the story happens with the spontaneity of real life. David Mitchell manages to convey that spontaneity even with a novel as carefully structured as Cloud Atlas. Suffice it to say that the first section of the novel ends in the most abrupt and mysterious way (which, I’m sorry, is already ruining part of the surprise!). It’s all part of the unfolding mystery of the novel, where we as readers are constantly kept off-balance just enough to keep us intrigued about what’s really going on in the story.
That’s at the macro level of plot structure, though. The sense of spontaneity and surprise also exist at the micro level of individual sentences, where there’s a constant inventiveness on display. That inventiveness takes on different forms as the novel progresses. We never settle into boredom and predictability. Language itself changes and transforms. This level of experimentation is more frequent in literary fiction, but you don’t need to turn into Thomas Pynchon to push yourself into writing something new and fresh.
One thing to note, and this is for myself since I tend to go overboard if I try too hard: even with surprising plots and inventive diction, David Mitchell’s writing always manages to be clear. It’s easy to be original and convoluted. You’ll often see this in writing groups, where much of the feedback is about not understanding a turn of phrase, a plot twist, a clue, a theme. So, it’s much more difficult to be original and clear.
INTRODUCING WORLDS AND CHARACTERS
Building the world
In the first chapter of Coraline by Neil Gaiman, the protagonist moves into a new house, which is split among various tenants, including her own family. The first chapter is built in concentric circles that spiral inward: Coraline explores the grounds around the house for interesting discoveries, then continues exploring the inside of the house, meeting her weird neighbours, and finally explores the inside of her family’s apartment, eventually discovering a mysterious, boarded-up door.
As far as magical kids’ tales, it’s different from something like A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle or The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis, which take us to faraway magical lands. Coraline is a haunted house story. This house and its grounds are a concentrated, layered world with secrets under other secrets.
Throughout the first chapter, Coraline’s curiosity keeps her in motion. She solves little problems, makes small discoveries, and meets new characters. The rules of the world are discovered firsthand via her actions. She opens the door, while we turn the page. A story is found on the other side of these actions.
Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2006, doesn’t have traditional chaptering. Like Cloud Atlas, it’s considered literary fiction, so the story is less oriented around plot and premise (not that these aren’t important in this genre, but they can sometimes be more subtly expressed). It’s slow-paced and more focused on psychology and emotion. It’s the story of a man and his son on a long, dangerous journey along the titular road.
The story takes place in extreme times and puts the characters in an extremely vulnerable state. That state of constant danger brings to life what is essentially a parable of parenthood, the story of a parent trying to protect his child from the world. We all have someone we care about, and we all know how wrenching it is to watch that person experience pain. On their behalf, we can lash out in anger or become crippled with worry.
The Road taps into this emotional turmoil with stakes that are life-threatening and immediate. The story is a portrayal of parental anxiety from the first line: “When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of night he’d reached out to touch the child sleeping beside him.”
The child, meanwhile, is almost an icon of childhood: vulnerable, idealistic, scared. The child is more fragile, and the world is darker, but the emotions are the same as our own.
So even if the premise of The Road is simple, what drives it are gut reactions and primal emotions: love, fear, hunger. These emotions transcend the complexity, simplicity, or marketability of the premise. The characters’ experiences trigger universal emotional responses in the readers.
Hopefully this all gives you something to think about as you write, revise, start new work, or participate in NaNoWriMo (good luck!). For those interested, I go into further detail about each of these examples in other essays here on Medium, and also in videos on YouTube.
Anyway, I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas on writing first chapters, what reactions you have to the openings of these books, and if you have other great examples to share.