Building a Book: First Chapter

Construction of your book continues. Now that we have created some blueprints, gotten a few small tools ready to go, it’s time to start thinking bigger.

It’s time to actually knock your first chapter out of the dadgum park.

I’m sure you’re sick of us reading how everything is so important to get right, but the fact is that to be a successful author, you have to get ~all of it!~ right. Therefore, I am here to once again write the sentence, Nailing your first chapter is one of the hardest things you’ll need to do, but you have to do it well or the whole thing is going to shit. Casual, simple, no pressure — per usual. 

One of the reasons your first chapter is so important is because it is often what will help set you on the road to success. If you choose to go down the traditional publishing route, you’ll send a potential agent your first 10 pages — likely all of or most of your first chapter. Should you choose to self-publish, an offered sample of your work before someone chooses to buy it is also going to be part of or all of your first chapter. 

So, again, casual, simple, no pressure. 

Before we start analyzing the bones of the first chapter, let’s take a moment to mention that it is not your prologue! While a prologue can add some much-needed color or excitement to the opening of the novel or give added context to a reader, a prologue, by definition, is not part of your novel. If the actions of the novel cannot stand without the events of the prologue, then it should be chapter one. Many agents do not accept the prologue as part of your 10 page submission. Many readers do not bother to read the prologue. Bear all of this in mind and remember to call a chapter a chapter if it should be a chapter. Do not let common convention of adding a prologue deter you from having the book start where it should really start. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s actually get to work on your first chapter…

In the last “Building a Book” article — you’re subscribed to Three Houses Press and have been avidly following along, right??? — we talked about the perils of the first line. Before that, we talked about taking time to plan your piece from start to finish. If you’ve gone through those processes, then what comes next is a bit easier. You already have the most important line and you already know where it is you need this chapter to go. 

With those two building blocks in place, we now turn to add two more. The first is a sense of normalcy. The second, and by far the more important one, is action. 

Establishing a sense of normalcy is important because it shows the readers what is at stake to gain or lose as the novel progresses. Action is important because it’s interesting and engaging — but keep in mind that action doesn’t need to be a literal sword fight. 

A great example in the public domain of a solid first chapter is in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. In this super short opening to the novel, we see all four of the core building blocks in place. 

  • Engaging first line: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” This iconic first line not only is engaging, but it sets the foundation of what the rest of the book will be about. 
  • Clear idea of where it is going: Austen, who I’d like to imagine was a pre-planner, knows she needs to both establish the Bennet household and make it clear that their neighborhood is about to change. In a short conversation between the two Bennet parents, she accomplishes this with ease. 
  • Establishes normalcy: Austen includes lines in the conversation and narration that show this to be a relatively normal type of interaction between Mr. and Mrs. Bennett. We see them so clearly, Mr. Bennet is sarcastic and difficult. Mrs. Bennet is a gossip who is desperate for her daughters to marry. And yet…
  • There is action: …the content of the conversation is wholly new. The topic of Bingley’s arrival provides the reader with curiosity and, in subsequent chapters, we see that this arrival is the foundation for the rest of the story’s action. 

Another example, this time not in the public domain so I hope you have a copy handy, is Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. Let’s see how these four core building blocks play out…

  • Engaging first line: “When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.” It’s quick, simple, and quickly carries the readers to the rest of the paragraph (eager, of course, to find out who was supposed to be there). That is when she hits you with the line, without context, “This is the day of the reaping.” If a reader doesn’t stick around to find out what that is, then I’m not sure what will.
  • Clear idea of where it is going: By the end of chapter one, Collins knows she needs to create a reason for Katniss to desperately throw herself into the Hunger Games. Therefore, she uses this chapter to build tension around the games and the reaping, catapulting into the final moment of the chapter where Prim is selected. 
  • Establishes normalcy: On the day of the reaping, it would have been easy for Collins to imagine Katniss wandering around aimlessly worried. Instead, she shows what readers see as a somewhat normal day for her and Gale out hunting and imagining life beyond the district. Collins establishes Katniss’s abilities and strengths in a way that shows rather than tells. She shows readers both the simple life Katniss has to lose and all that she can gain moving forward. 
  • There is action: Hunting, preparing for the reaping, and then the initial events of the reaping all qualify as action. But what I think is especially interesting by way of action is the little things that break from a normal day — namely the tension surrounding the reaping. Katniss has lived through multiple reapings, so this is nothing new to her. Yet this helps keep everything moving at a rapid pace, keeping readers tied to the chapter even though the events of the day are somewhat mundane compared to what will happen in the rest of the novel. 

Now that we’ve gone through some examples, it’s your turn! What are your four core building blocks of the first chapter?