What Makes A Compelling First Chapter?

What Makes A Compelling First Chapter?

Are you wondering how to begin your book? In this post, we look at what makes a compelling first chapter.

Why do readers keep reading a book after the first chapter? What is it about that opening part of a book that hooks them and what can we do to ensure readers keep reading?

In writing this, I came across a dozen articles with titles like ‘9 Things Your First Chapter Needs!’, but they were not very persuasive to me.

Some of the things they advised were perplexing like, ‘Pick a point of view.’ Sure, great advice, but what does that have to do with a first chapter?

Or, ‘Make a hook for your intended readership.’ But, what is it that hooks people into a story? Is there really a formula for that?

Regardless, I don’t think it is so simple. I don’t think there is necessarily a well-trodden path here.

In this post I’ll explore what makes a compelling first chapter – with examples.

What Makes A Compelling First Chapter?

1. Not Every Great Book Has A Good Opening

I’ve read The Lord Of The Rings dozens of times and it is one of the bestselling works of all times. But, it has one of the most boring, slowest, seemingly unrelated openings of all time. It is a meandering mess of names and dates – information that it not relevant to the plot, and that largely goes nowhere.

I love it though.

Very few books can deliver the sense of calm and peace that the first few chapters of The Lord of the Rings does.

But, I know I only felt that way after reading all books in the series, and The Hobbit.

The Lord Of The Rings was a real slog the first time around. I don’t think Tolkien did himself any favours for new readers by writing in this way. But, The Hobbit opened so well and was so popular that perhaps he felt that he did not need to.

In stark contrast to The Lord Of The Rings, The Hobbit’s first chapter has all the thing a great first chapter should have, including:

  1. A memorable first line. ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit.’ It’s on par with, A Tale of Two Cities, ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…’ for sticking in the brain.
  2. A lot of activity. We had wizards and dwarves having a comical dinner party thrusting a middle-aged layabout into a great adventure. Truly whimsical and magical. A perfect hook for an adventure book.
  3. Likeable characters. I’ve never heard anyone say that the characters in The Hobbit were boring, have you? Yet, The Lord Of The Rings is the book that broke records – not The Hobbit.

2. Hooks Aren’t Always Obvious

I’ll say this: if your book is short, it needs an obvious hook in the first chapter. But, science fiction is famous for burying the lead, even in short works. It has misdirects and false starts, yet it still does well.

  1. Take Frank Herbert’s Dune. I don’t think the plot really gets going until the end of the first book. We are told about spice and secret orders and wheels within wheels for hundreds of pages before we see any tangible results.
  2. Arthur C. Clark likes to do this too. His books are almost always about a mystery and often it goes completely unsolved. The hook is simply trying to uncover what is going on. The City and the Stars misdirects right at the start. Clarke just spends time with his main character for the first chapter giving exposition as is often the case in older science fiction. But, I found the exposition interesting and that’s why I kept reading.

This is perfectly fine. Not everything needs action. But, it does not lend itself to the most thrilling of opening chapters. Rather, things build up slowly.

Often, we just get to know a character in the first chapter. And the first chapter ends with them discovering something slightly odd that moves them into indirect contact with the plot. Then, over the course of four or five chapters, the story proper develops.

So, I don’t think there is always a need to rush the plot.

3. Things I Think Help Readers Carry On Reading

1. Make it fun.

I think starting with something fun produces a rush of dopamine in your readers’ brains that leaves them inclined to forgive any lack of plot in the first chapter.

For example, the invention of ‘fire insurance’ leads to the immediate destruction of the city Ankh-Morpork in Terry Pratchett’s The Colour of Magic. I know for a fact that this fun side has led many dedicated readers to the series. Also, I know Terry Pratchett didn’t use chapters.

2. Making memorable (more than just likeable) characters is also a must.

I know it’s not a book, but the first three main characters we see in George Lucas‘s Star Wars are R2D2, C3PO, and Darth Vader, all of whom are unforgettable and interesting for different reasons. This makes you want to know more about them.

In the pulp fiction The Legend of Drizzt books, Drizzt has come to be known as a walking cliché, He is the lone good Drow fighting to redeem his race’s evil ways. Lost and alone, fighting for acceptance, so on and so forth, he is still memorable even if you just want to mock him.

And, by all means mock R. A. Salvatore, his creator, but he is 37 books deep at this point so he might be too busy writing to listen.

Again, not much happens in the first chapter of the first Drizzt book. There is a little action and some worldbuilding, but nothing special. I think what keeps people coming back are Salvatore’s action scenes. But you would have to put up with some truly bad writing to get to them in his early books.

In short, create a good atmosphere in your first chapter. Produce a feeling that will carry the reader though to the next chapter and make them feel like they can enjoy your world.

4. Things To Avoid

1. Even in horror don’t go too dark too quickly.

If you do, you are going to cause your readers to associate your books with negative emotions immediately, and that will stop most people dead in their tracks.

2. If it is your first book, don’t write like it’s your tenth.

You are not Tolkien. You are not Sanderson. You are not Hobb. Or any other single name author! You need to write something that will stand out to the reader.

  • Every first time author can benefit from reading the first chapter of Rowling‘s Harry Potter and noting just how quickly the reader’s attention is drawn to magic and whimsy. We see an old man in robes quashing the lights in a street by using a magical lighter that sucks in light. Please tell me more…
  • The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe opens with children finding a portal to a magic world in a strange old man’s home. Go on please…

Note how crime books almost always begin with the crime. The hook is how the protagonist will solve it. This is a genre that comes with a built-in hook.

These sorts of hooks are crucial to generate interest. In no small part because they are the kind of thing you can imagine explaining to your friends when you tell them about that new book you are reading.

On the other hand, it’s genuinely difficult to actually explain Dune or The Lord of the Rings by their chronically slow openings. I mean what do you say? ‘There was a birthday party with fireworks.’? At least Dune has the weird humanity test.

The Last Word

To sum up, there is no sure-fire method to make a great first chapter.

However, your opening chapter, or prologue, should make the reader feel something positive about the book. The reader should think there is something interesting here, even if they are not sure what it is right away.

Perhaps, this can be done with mystery, crime fiction, and science fiction or fantasy.

  1. It can be done with fascinating characters. This works well for romance and adventure.
  2. It can be done by jumping right into the action. Obviously this works for spy thrillers and action war dramas.

But, sometimes slow works.

Sometimes, people just want to relax and read a slow book where things happen gradually. And, well, I don’t know why it only works for certain books. Most slow novels are very different from each other. They are just as likely to be historical family dramas or space operas or literary works or pulp fiction.

Why does Foundation by Isaac Asimov work? It’s so slow and disjointed that the first chapter seems pointless and unrelated to the rest of the work. It just should not have been published by any reasonable editor.

But, people love it. I don’t know why, but they do. And, heck it’s not even the same people who like Dune for the most part. It just makes no sense.

I hope this was enlightening or interesting. Please let me know below what you think makes a great opening chapter.

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Christopher :Luke Dean Written by Christopher Luke Dean  (the Prologue chapter Concerning Hobbits is the best part of The Lord Of The Rings and its only purpose is to describe rural agricultural life. Why do I feel this way?)

Christopher Luke Dean writes and facilitates for Writers Write. Follow him on Twitter: @ChrisLukeDean

More Posts From Christopher:

  1. How To Write An Action Scene In 3 Steps
  2. How To Get An ‘A’ Analysing Poetry
  3. Why We Need To Get Back To Writing With Hope
  4. 10 Worthy Antagonists In Fiction & Tips For Writing Them
  5. Why You Shouldn’t Only Write What You Know
  6. Writers Talk 11 | The 8 Elements Of Setting
  7. A Quick-Start Guide To Writing Fantasy
  8. Writers Talk 10 | Creativity & Imagination
  9. Writers Talk 9 | Journey To The West
  10. Characters & The Rule Of Two For Writers

Top Tip: Find out more about our workbooks and online courses in our shop.

Posted on: 4th November 2021

3 thoughts on “What Makes A Compelling First Chapter?”

  1. I love this thoughtful, original post. Thank you for counter-intuitive examples and candor. Reading Writers Write each morning is a piece of my routine. Even when I’m procrastinating, it brings me back to writing. Thank you.

  2. I always struggle for a good hook, but I know em when I see em.

    One of my favorite hooks comes from Wild Seed by Octavia Butler. It starts with the main character searching for what happened to “one of his seed villages”, only to find it destroyed. That is the first three paragraphs and is, itself, a pretty good hook. But in the next paragraph, we get this bit as he continues to wander through the forest.

    “He was killed several times – by disease, by animals, by hostile people. This was a harsh land. Yet he continued to move Southwest.”

    And that’s the REAL hook. Right into the actions, raises a lot of questions, and then hits you between the eyes with an “I need to read that again” moment. Butler is an excellent author, and the opening to this one was compelling… at least to me.

    I also like the beginning of Ender’s Game (what’s not to like about a Card book?), with the two unnamed people discussing Ender and his siblings. They talk in a vacuum, just the words with no settings or descriptions. The story questions are clear, immediate, and interesting enough to make a reader stick around to find out more.

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