Your Ultimate First Chapter Checklist

Your Ultimate First Chapter Checklist, Pt. 1: Hooking Readers

Your Ultimate First Chapter Checklist Your story’s first chapter is one of the most important pieces of your story. Not only does it provide the foundation for a solid storyform to come, it is also your first and only chance to pique readers’ curiosity and suck them in. For better or worse, the first chapter is also one of the most challenging parts of any story. There’s just so much that has be set up in these opening moments. Too bad we don’t have a first chapter checklist, huh?

Well, today we do!

Because I often comment about the “whole list of stuff a first chapter must accomplish,” I’ve gotten a lot of requests for a post that would provide that full first chapter checklist.

3 Different Kinds of First Chapter Checklist

Like every chapter to follow, your first chapter must fulfill all the usual requirements of a chapter: introducing the scene, the characters’ current orientation within the setting, and their personal goals for this particular episode within the larger story.

But first chapters are special—as we all know, since that’s why we’re here today! First chapters don’t just have to introduce themselves. They have to introduce the entire story. More than that, they have to offer all these introductions within the context of one singularly fascinating event in your characters’ lives—so that readers will be hooked into reading the rest of the story.

That’s a lot for one little ol’ chapter to accomplish all by itself. Which is why first chapters are hard. Which is why I’ve broken down our first chapter checklist into three parts, so you can better see the various aspects of a successful first chapter. Starting this week, we’re going to talk about what is, arguably, the first chapter’s most important job: hooking readers. Because if they don’t keep reading, none of the rest of it really matters, does it?

I’ll be including fast examples from the first chapter of my soon-to-be-published superhero historical Wayfarer, so you can see what each necessary element looks like in actual execution.

First Chapter Checklist #1: Hooking Readers

1. Opening Line Hook

Your first chapter starts with a first line—and that line needs to be brilliant. Optimally, it will hook readers all by itself by presenting something so entertaining, curious, or shocking they can’t turn away. But even if the first line is just setup for a hook that follows in the lines to come rather than being the hook, it needs to be an example of your best writing. Readers want to look at that first line and know they’re going to be in good hands.

Example From Wayfarer:

In the hamlet of Affery, folk cherished the plague.

2. Opening Situation/Characteristic Moment Hook

Possibly one of the most challenging aspects of a first chapter is brainstorming an opening situation for your characters that will allow you the opportunity to introduce all the important elements on this list while simultaneously being a fascinating and exciting scene in its own right. Oh yeah, and you also need to make sure that situation introduces the scene’s main character (preferably your protagonist) as a fascinating person.

Although there are many recommended tricks for accomplishing this (including the controversial method of in medias res), it’s important to realize you don’t actually have to open in a moment of high action. Instead, there are two keys to choosing an opening situation/characteristic moment that will hook readers:

1. The character needs to want something that is being blocked (which will create its own inherent sense of forward motion and action).

2. There needs to be an element of the unexpected or the off-kilter (which piques reader curiosity by getting them to ask an implicit or explicit question).

Example From Wayfarer:

I hope the opening line about hamlet folk cherishing the plague will provide that initial element of the unexpected and get readers to wonder why anyone would appreciate mass illness. From there, the story moves on to show protagonist Will Hardy hurrying toward the “source” of that plague in search of a job. He is, however, immediately blocked in that goal when he literally runs into a young woman who is not what she pretends to be.

After last month’s barley harvest, the fields lay in barren contentment, even with his feet flinging soil clods. The sun burnt through the crisp autumn breeze and heated his face. He was belated, and considering what awaited him, that was far worse than any fabled plague.

He reached the stile in the midst of the tumbled stone wall. In one stride, he leapt the three steps. The second stride would have been no difficulty—save for the singularly lovely face that distracted him from the corner of his eye. He caught his toe on the bottom step, and from there it was top over tail into the road.

In a flurry of green skirts, the girl scarcely halted before tripping over him. “Oh!”

3. Scene Disaster Hook as First Domino Setting Up Main Conflict

Here’s something that may blow your mind: your opening chapter is not your Inciting Event. The Inciting Event or Call to Adventure doesn’t come later until halfway through the First Act around the 12% mark. Instead, the opening chapter should present what will be the first domino in setting up the main conflict and leading the character to his meeting with that Call to Adventure.

You do this via your opening scene’s ending disaster. Your character wants something in this scene (her goal), which is met by an obstacle (the conflict), which at least complicates her initial goal, leading to further consequences she must deal with (the disaster).

In any chapter, the disaster that closes out the structure of one scene will set up the goal that begins the structure of the next scene. Your opening chapter, however, carries the larger responsibility of not just setting up Chapter 2 but, indeed, setting up the whole book.

Your first chapter’s conflict will not yet be the main conflict (that is, the direct struggle between the protagonist and the established antagonistic force). However, its conflict must still be absolutely pertinent to the story. You can’t just choose a fun characteristic moment that introduces your protagonist’s outrageous personality unless that moment also relates to the main conflict.

Your character’s goal in the first chapter may not be directly related to the main story goal she will be chasing in the Second Act, but the disaster that keeps her from this initial goal must be her first nudge toward the Inciting Event that will entangle her with that main conflict.

Example From Wayfarer:

My protagonist Will doesn’t start out the first chapter with the superpowers that are central to the story’s premise. Neither does he start out with a scene goal that is directly related to the main story goal of saving his master from debtor’s prison and defeating the antagonist who wants to take over London. In fact, he doesn’t even start out knowing the antagonist exists.

All he wants in this first chapter is to get a job that will help him escape the hamlet on his way to an adventurous life in London where he believes he can become respectable and wealthy. It’s what stymies this goal that is important and that sets up the following chapters by introducing both the means by which he will gain his powers and the antagonistic forces at play.

In short, this first chapter sets up the second chapter, which sets up the following chapter, which then sets up the Inciting Event.

4. Tonal Hook

One of the most overlooked opportunities for a hook in the first chapter is a story’s tone. The voice and vibe of a story create its personality, and its personality is a subtle foreshadowing trick that primes readers for what to expect.

The “it” factor of a distinct narrative voice signals to readers that you are a writer who is confidently in control of the reading experience. Even more than that, an appropriately interesting tone can act as a hook all its own.

Pride and Prejudice Jane AustenWhich would you rather read?

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

–or–

All woman want to marry rich men.

This tonal attitude is most obvious in stories with humorous or outrageous voices. But it’s just as important and accessible in stories that are quieter, sadder, or plainer, as in Joan Didion’s A Year of Magical Thinking or Charles Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities:

Year of Magical Thinking Joan DidionLife changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends. The question of self-pity.

***

Tale-of-Two-Cities Charles DickensIt was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.

The trick is to know exactly what your story’s personality will be and to convey it with precision.

Example From Wayfarer:

This book, set in 1820 England, is a story with a darkly serious spine but overlaid with lots of humor and romance. It’s “Charles Dickens meets Spider-Man”—which is, in itself, a fun juxtaposition. In creating the first chapter’s tone, I wanted to take advantage of the setting’s slightly archaic verbiage to overlay the serious nature of the story’s plot and theme with the fun adventurousness that accompanies the crazy idea of a superhero coming of age in Georgian England.

In the hamlet of Affery, folk cherished the plague.

Will Hardy was not one of those folk. In all truth, he held no belief whatever in a plague he’d never had sight of in all his life.

That was why he ran, head up, arms pumping, directly towards the source of it.

***

If you can mark all four of these important hooks off your first chapter checklist, you will have accomplished the first of your story’s most important jobs: convincing readers to keep reading!

Next week, we’ll explore your First Chapter Checklist #2: The Special Requirements of Your Story’s First Scene.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! How did you do with this first chapter checklist? How have you hooked readers? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Lyn Alexander says:

    I follow the “rules” fairly well, but at the same time manage to conceal the rules under the… what shall I call it? Under the emotion of the narrative. I write my novels in deep third; so the narrative comes directly out of the protagonist’s POV. If that doesn’t draw in the reader, I don’t know what does.
    Which brings me to another necessary element of good fiction.
    An emotional connection.
    As for first lines, how’s this for a first line?
    I was born running.

    BTW, I’m at odds with the “best of times, worst of times” of A Tale of Two Cities. At the end of that opening paragraph we are hanging up in the air, wondering… Okay, which is it? But that is precisely the strength of the paragraph. We stay to find out what kind of times it is.
    This is about as far away from intimate as a writer can get. A tale of cities? My goodness, who the devil cares about stories of cities?
    And this, too is part of the magic of fiction. What are the odds that such an opener would thrive over the passage of time?
    Here is another truth. I would never have read A Tale of Two Cities if we hadn’t taken it in high school. I must read it again.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I like it! And I agree with you. I think this is exactly what the best authors do: follow the rules but do it so smoothly we never notice. Patrick O’Brian was brilliant at this.

    • I had to grin at what you said about `Tale of Two Cities,’ especially `who cares about cities?’ I have a theory that `Casablanca’ is basically `A Tale of Two Cities’ the (semi) modern remake. If I remember right (and it’s been a while since I watched `Casablanca’) doesn’t it open in a similar way- with a voice-over introducing the turmoil of nations torn apart by war and the waiting desperation of people who don’t know if they even have a future, which makes all past wealth and position meaningless?

  2. Oof. I needed this. Especially the bit about the opening chapter not being the Inciting Incident— I tend to forget that. I’ve been fairly happy with the beginning of my WIP, but I’ve had several beta-readers point out that while the first paragraph is good the rest drags too long… a fact probably not helped by its being a prologue. *winces* I’ve considered just cutting the prologue many times, but couldn’t think of any other way to include some absolutely crucial information.
    This has given me some ideas. Thanks so much. 🙂

    Also, it’s great to see Will again. 😀

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I think the idea that the Inciting Event has to be in the first chapter is one of most damaging and misleading for writers struggling with their First Act. The first half of the First Act is a crucial setup period *for* the Inciting Event. Which doesn’t, of course, mean that it shouldn’t be fascinating. 🙂

      • *writes all that down so she’ll be sure to remember*
        I used to be (and deep down still am) one of those writers who likes to take her time getting established and feeling her way around the story and characters before she actually pitches them headlong into the plot. Finding a balance between set-up and action has always been tricky. It’s a relief to be reminded that there’s a definite place for both. 😉

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Same here. Again, I think finding that balance goes back to your reading preferences. As a reader, I much prefer stories that take their time with excellent character development upfront to those that dump me into the action before giving me someone to care about.

    • Prologues are special. They’re useful. A prologue lets you use a different voice or POV than in the rest of the book. It also lets you frame the book within a larger situation, e.g., WWII. It lets you show vital backstory that takes place in a much earlier time frame. (Or later, if it’s Sci-Fi) Short is best, however. Never more than a page, max. Half a page is usually better.

  3. Michael says:

    This was a good recap of the structuring your novel book, which I need to keep reading, but it was great with the examples included from your own work. I remember the Jane Austin one from the book. I think, like an introduction of an essay, its something you need to keep coming back to as I think it could easily change as the story develops. I believe thinking about the character of the book is important, as to capture that in the intro also gives the reader a clear feel of the writing style.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      What you say is true, although interestingly enough I find that my best first lines are almost always those that I wrote right from the beginning–perhaps even knew before starting the first draft.

      • Well done! So you kinda hooked yourself into your own story.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Something like that. 🙂 I think it’s the organic flow that comes when the perfect first line is in place right from the beginning.

  4. While introducing the protagonist in the first scene might work for stories that simply follow a central character through the plot, for my genre, crime stories, the first scene often centres on a character who no longer appears at all in the rest of the book… I refer of course to a victim, particularly if it’s a murder victim.

    Opening the book with either a dramatic crime being committed, or some other event or revelation that piques the reader’s interest or curiosity will draw them in. However, the writer needs to be careful not to lay out too much of what’s to come, or the outcome will be worked out by the reader too early. I’ve recently used the device of introducing a character at the beginning who has all the credentials to become one of the serial killer’s victims. His apparent interests, background, and general profile make him a shoe in for the next messy corpse. Beginning in chapter one, his activities throughout the first half of the novel seem to back this up, but he then confuses the police by turning out to be the murderer (after they’d earlier considered him a potential victim, and had been searching for him to protect him… a thread to the plot that had been running from the second chapter, when police become aware of his arrival on the scene).

    Often, it’s several scenes (even chapters) into the book that the protagonist(s) appear… either after the crime has been discovered/reported, or in the case of a serial offender, a connection has been made after several events, which follow a pattern, elevate the crimes to becoming serious.

    Crime novels often don’t have a single ’central’ character. They have separate threads, each with at least one central character. Often, each thread has both a main ‘bad guy’, and a leading ’good guy’ who’s trying to solve the crime, and then catch the perpetrator once they’ve identified him/her.

    This is particularly the case when a plot’s various threads only become connected towards the end of the book – often at that ‘eureka!’ moment when perplexed and baffled protagonists (often different ones working on separate crimes that were believed unconnected) see the connection. It works a bit like a TV soap opera, with different characters’ lives running in parallel, but no single one of them more important than some others… at least that’s how soaps work on this side of the pond.

  5. I seem to be in the minority of writers who enjoy writing first chapters. I like them because, when done right, they’re a glimpse of what’s to come, so I get some of the joy of the best parts of the book. Plus, first chapters are simple enough that I don’t get tangled up in the details.
    Great point about it not being the inciting incident! It can be easy to forget that, especially with all the ‘in medias res’ type of advice floating around.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I like writing first chapters too–when they go well! They’ve been fun for my last three books, so I hope this is the beginning of a new cycle. 😉

  6. Most of my current chapter 1 I’m going to move to 2 or 3 in editing. The antagonists debut too soon, it needs a complete re-write to better flesh out the circle of main cast early on that drive the story (these are all characters the reader is supposed to care about later on).

    Would the end of first chapter be too early to at least have signs of the antagonists’ presence, even if they don’t show their faces yet? (i.e. Mysterious “accidents” start happening).

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Nope, definitely not too early. It’s important to at least foreshadow the first sign of the antagonistic force in the first chapter. This is something I’ll talk more about in next week’s post.

  7. I appreciate this article since first sentences are hard to figure out.

    Your description, in this sentence, encapsulated the whole meaning of what a hook is:

    “…the opening chapter should present what will be the first domino in setting up the main conflict and leading the character to his meeting with that Call to Adventure.”

    Thanks for sharing your information!

  8. Lyn Alexander says:

    Katie, I wish you would include an ability to click on emojis or ‘likes’ in the comments. I would love to give a quick thumbs-up to many of the comments appearing here. Such fun.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      That would be fun! I don’t think it’s a functionality my WordPress theme offers though.

  9. Sorry to hijack your article – I’m a long time lurker and I would really like your thoughts on something that’s killing me for the past 2 years.

    I have outlined a whole novel, even written about 15 chapters/150 pages, but I’m stuck now as I can’t decide the theme of it.

    Do you think that it’s possible to choose the theme AFTER having the plot? Or the novel would feel broken?

    Regards,

    Murilo

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Thanks for commenting! 🙂

      Theme always arises from plot–and plot always represents theme. They’re inextricable. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean your story is “broken.” Consider your character’s arc–especially how it manifest in the story’s climax. The choices the character makes there will reflect the theme. You might find this article helpful: Don’t Know Your Story’s Theme? Take a Look at Your Character’s Arc.

    • Scribalist says:

      Hello Murilo,

      I had a bit of trouble with this myself, during a recent planning phase. Consider James Joyce’s Portrait, which has a diverse sense of subject matter. Love, religion, education… other stuff. It all converges in the first few pages of the story, to the point of this article. And yet, at least in my opinion, it is one coherent work. According to Dramatica, despite the capacity to have diverse subject matter within a single story, there comes to be one overall message.

      Happy writing!

  10. Great post. I’m looking forward to the upcoming parts. However, I have a question about the first scene domino you were talking about. A lot of times my inciting incident happens in chapter one because I feel like if I put it later and add something else in the beginning, people will get bored before the actual plot kicks off. How can I connect the first chapter and the rest of the story if I don’t put the inciting incident in chapter one?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      My guess is that what you’re calling the Inciting Event in your first chapter actually *is* that first domino. The easiest way to tell is to look at the halfway point in your First Act (around the 12%) mark. Is there a Call to Adventure happening there–or at least a plot turn that pushes the character closer to the First Plot Point? If so, that’s probably your Inciting Event. You might find this post helpful: Your Book’s Inciting Event: It’s Not What You Think It Is.

  11. I first learned about you a few weeks ago, when I started following Madison Grace’s blog, and she wrote about how much your books were helping her. Since then, I’ve downloaded your podcast, and I love see the new blog posts in my email inbox. I definitely needed to read this post – I’m doing Camp NaNoWriMo for the first time, trying to add 20,000 words to the attempt / endeavor I made during my first NaNoWriMo in 2012. What an education! I think I have a great first sentence, or hook, for my WIP. I’m not so sure about the first chapter. I guess that’s what editing is for, right? My main focus is to finish it. I would like to reach at least 50,000 words. I’m about 47 pages in, so far. Thank you for your encouragement to writers like myself. Have a great day!

  12. Ms. Albina says:

    Great article, do you keep a journal when you have ideas for your characters? I am writing two WIP then more typing. Do you write free hand type or both?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I don’t really keep a journal for writing anymore. I write outlines freehand, then type the first drafts.

  13. sam steidel says:

    I am having a touch of trouble making this clear. You talk about chapters. Is this not about the first scene? Or set of first scenes? Should the first chapter include the 12% mark inciting event. It seems that chapter distinction of the first chapter has become a substantial structure element. I had to go back and look at previous discussions on chapters. Found this.

    “Chapters, on the other hand, are completely arbitrary divisions within a book. It’s true they do impose order upon a novel—and, as a result, a certain sense of structure. But, on the story level, they actually have nothing whatsoever to do with structure.”

    Now I am really confused. If “Your story’s first chapter is one of the most important pieces of your story.” is it not now a part of the structure? Help.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      A story’s first chapter has to accomplish certain structural things–namely presenting the story’s hook and first plot domino. But it is not, in itself, a part of the structure. An opening chapter can be as short or as long as the author chooses. Unless it is very long (or the book is very short), it is highly unlikely that it will include the Inciting Event at the 12% mark.

  14. I know this is only half the list, but:
    Do we need to Save The Cat in the first chapter, like in a Hollywood film?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes and no. The point of a “save the cat” beat is to introduce sympathetic qualities in the character so readers will bond with him. This is important, but what’s most important is *hooking* readers. A character doesn’t necessarily have to be nice (or save cats); she just has to be interesting. It depends on the story, your character, and your aims. The Characteristic Moment in the first chapter should introduce the most pertinent and most interesting facets of your character. If those facets, for your character, are all about how nice he is, then definitely have him save a cat. If not, he can always pet a cat later if need be.

  15. DirectorNoah says:

    I’m using a flashforward scene from the ending to hook readers, which features my MC involved in an accident, since the original first chapter was a little slow. It had the crucial setup, so it is now the second chapter and after that, things get really interesting. 😉
    I’m hoping the flashforward will be gripping enough to draw readers through the setup, and into the unfolding events of the First Plot Point. ☺

    I’m still working on my opening first line, as there’s a lot of factors to consider when choosing one, and I want to carefully create the perfect hook to engage readers. 😀
    Thanks for a great post, and looking forward to reading the next ones in the series!

  16. I’m curious about your use of the word “chapter” here as opposed to scene. The reason I bring it up is because a chapter is an arbitrary unit, but a scene has specific elements in traditionally structured literature.

    A chapter may be one scene, but it may also be five (or more…). So I wanted to clarify. The things you have listed here to accomplish, do NOT all have be accomplished in the first *scene* and can be accomplished in multiple scenes so long as they occur within a certain percentage of the story, which may (or may not) constitute a single chapter (chapter 1)… Do I have that right?

    Sorry to be exacting, but your blog is my go-to study aid for my coaching clients. That scene-chapter thing is confusing to new writers and we revisit it often (including your post on it!)

    Thanks Kate! 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Optimally all these things will happen in the first chapter’s first scene. But it definitely depends on the restrictions of the story. The goal is to introduce these things as soon as possible, but sometimes one or two elements will have to wait for the next couple of scenes.

  17. I think I did have some events in my superhero stories, and include a backstory for my protagonist.

Trackbacks

  1. […] https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/first-chapter-checklist-1/ “Your story’s first chapter is one of the most important pieces of your story. Not only does it provide the foundation for a solid storyform to come, it is also your first and only chance to pique readers’ curiosity and suck them in. For better or worse, the first chapter is also one of the most challenging parts of any story. There’s just so muchthat has be set up in these opening moments. Too bad we don’t have a first chapter checklist, huh?” This sounds like a great checklist to go by! […]

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