Helping Writers Become Authors

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.

Which 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:

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

***

It 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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