The first chapter of your book needs to be a bit special. All of the chapters need to be special, but Chapter 1 needs to be extra special. This is your agent-catcher. It’s the chapter where you need to hook that agent’s attention – or reader’s attention – and then keep them going. Your first chapter should be so polished that water can’t even settle on it, it just slides right off without any friction at all.
So, without further ado, here’s a checklist for your own first chapter that you might find useful to work through, to see if you’re doing common things that generally don’t work. This comes with the usual caveat that everybody’s writing process is different, and what works for me may not work for you etc… but I’d be willing to bet that if (like me with my previous 1.5 million words of novels!) you’ve had a lot of impersonal rejections, or if your beta readers just aren’t getting enthusiastic, then you might find that a number of these points are appearing. Also, there are exceptions to every rule, and these checklist items will simply not apply to very old books – times have changed, so sure, Tolkien doesn’t meet many of these, but then, The Lord of the Rings wouldn’t get published if Tolkien was writing today.
- Where does Chapter One drop us in? Is this the absolutely most interesting point that it’s feasible to drop the reader off in? You only get one shot to keep them reading. Was this the finest, most interesting, tense, exciting, glamorous, explosive, chilling scene that you could have written? If not, then it’s not first chapter material. If your chapter is a Slice Of Life chapter, calmly setting up the scene for the reader – then it’s not going to be gripping. We can be plunged straight into the action and understand that normally it’s a quiet day on the farm. We don’t need to see that quiet day. Ask yourself whether you can cut the whole chapter, and just start in Chapter 2. Then ask the same about Chapter 2.
- Cliched Openers. Try to avoid the following, which agents have seen 1000 times before: Waking up from a dream. Waking up with a hangover. Sword fighting training montage. “The Big Day” (e.g. Susie woke up. She was 16 today! Now she would become the chosen one!). A battle or fight with detailed descriptions of the action (we don’t know/care about the characters at this stage. It’s hard to be excited). It’s fine to have action, but the first chapter needs to establish characters and reasons to care about them rather than endangering them.
- Is something actually happening? And by something, I mean, something really really important/interesting. Something that’s going to get my mind bubbling for what comes next in the story. Does it make me thirst to reach the end of the book so that I know how it all works out? You need to hit this hard and run with it from the very first chapter.
- Is the protagonist an interesting character to follow? Why should I be interested in this character over others? As a general rule, a child in peril is always interesting to a reader. A lone woman on a dark road is always interesting. A wounded soldier behind enemy lines is always interesting. A farm boy who just wants to leave his boring home? Not so much. An interesting one here is The Old Veteran Living A Quiet Life. He’s interesting because we can immediately assume that his life is not going to remain quiet for long. Give us a character that we can relate to in terms of their fears and wants (see 5) but who is in a position that makes their immediate situation urgent. First chapters that begin by following kings, emperors, and generals bore me silly. I don’t care about their kingdom, I don’t care about whether they lose that port on the coast. I’m more interested in their wrongly-accused slave. Make sure that your protagonist is someone we can root for.
- 3500 words is probably your maximum chapter size for a first chapter. It’s common to try to cram in so much backstory and detail that first chapters can swell.
- PROPER NOUN OVERLOAD.Do not overwhelm the reader. No more than three named characters, including the protagonist, and one named place. Everything/everyone else can be described as “the guy in the jacket” or “distant cities.” If your chapter necessitates us meeting six people around a table, then change the chapter – let us acclimatise to your world gently. Readers simply cannot absorb that many proper nouns in one go. Also, don’t waste time on a slew of place names, magic names etc. We’ll mentally gloss over them as we try to get to the drama.
- Does the protagonist perform actively, e.g. do they want something? They need to want something, even if it’s just a ham sandwich. The inability to have what they want is what spurs their actions through the chapter. What does the protagonist want? Is it interesting?
- Don’t Wrap It All Up. As this is a first chapter, it needs to drive me to turn the next page. I feel that it’s an error to make Chapter 1 read like a short story or prologue, e.g. the incidents and the immediate threat have been cleared up by the time we get to the end. Does your chapter make me want to enter chapter 2? It absolutely has to. This means that killing off the character that we follow in Chapter 1 is generally not going to be a great idea (there are exceptions, sure) but can work as long as there’s sufficient mystery set up to drive us to want to read more.
- Reader Feedback – “Best book ever!” or try again. When you get feedback from your readers (I advise getting 3 different opinions on your work, preferably from people who are writers, who read fantasy, and who you wouldn’t loan money to) then they need to love your first chapter. Not just like it. Love it. So much that they’re asking for more chapters to read. Because if they don’t, if they say “Hmmm, yeah it was good” then that’s what an agent will think, and that agent isn’t going to take on “Hmmm, yeah it was good.” They take on “Omg I love this and I can sell it for a lot of money!” You need an “Omg!” If you don’t get it, go back to work on the chapter again. Be objective about criticism.
- Don’t be precious. Finally, consider cutting it, or rewriting it from scratch completely. Blackwing’s first chapter was rewritten from scratch four times, changing the location, the events, the characters – everything. And it’s worth it, because you have to get this right, and when you’ve been working on and editing something a lot, sometimes it can start getting overworked, turgid. A fresh write-through can be brilliant for changing things up and getting a better perspective.
As I said before, this is just my advice and it may not always work for everyone, but it worked for me and I think it’s pretty solid. There will always be exceptions, but if the points given here help you, then my work is done.
Ed McDonald is the author of The Raven’s Mark series of books, which are published in nine languages around the world. He lives in London where he works part time as a learning and teaching specialist at a university, goes sword fighting (and axe fighting, dagger fighting. . . generally anything you can hit someone with) and can be found in various pubs and cafes working away on the next project.