The first chapter might be the most important chapter in a novel.
Whether you’re trying to entice an agent or publisher for traditional publishing, or trying to keep readers who’ve picked up your self-published masterpiece, the first chapter needs to be a great hook.
There are plenty of articles out there which detail some elements of a good opening chapter (like this one from Writers’ Digest which describes several agent-repelling mistakes, and this list of tips by Chuck Wendig).
So, rather than try to provide comprehensive advice here, I’m focusing on three major issues I’ve encountered while writing my own first chapter(s): (1) knowing where to start the narration; (2) being able to set aside perfectionism so you can finish the rest of the manuscript; and (3) having the humility to make major changes.
Knowing Where to Start
The narration should start in the midst of action—not necessarily physical action or the main plot, but a scenario which provides immediate forward momentum.
Main characters should have desires and fears before they’re introduced to the readers.
Before writing the first chapters of my current project, I laid out psychological profiles and histories for my characters, but the pre-existing problems they had simply weren’t interesting enough as a starting point for the novel. My (attempted) solution was two-fold: I gave them more elaborate pasts, and shifted the narration so the first chapter begins later in their lives.
Perfection is the Enemy
Lots of writers (particularly new writers) tend to suffer from perfectionism, editing the first chapter(s) of their novels so many times they lose steam and never finish an entire manuscript. This happened to me with the great majority of my past projects.
I’ve found it’s better to keep moving forward.
For my first “completed” MS, after writing a draft of any chapter, I avoided making major edits until I finished a draft of the full MS. Though I’ve since spent a lot of time revising this novel, I believe structural edits made after a full draft is finished are much more powerful than any edits that could be made beforehand.
Bring the Scissors—and a Nuke
Being willing to make major changes makes a huge difference (probably).
At around the “tenth draft” of my MS, to bring more action into the earlier parts of my book, I compressed ten chapters of plot into four. While this process brought more excitement to the forefront, it also left the first chapters rather clunky (odd transitions, too many scene changes, not enough sympathy for the characters).
After further revisions (cleaning up the parenthesized problems above, among other things), I found my first chapters were still unsatisfactory. My hypothesis as to the reason: I preserved too many elements of older drafts which were broken from the compression process.
Cutting and pasting wasn’t working out. Fixing one problem seemed to lead into another.
So, about two weeks ago, I set aside the scissors and brought in the nuke. I obliterated the first three chapters to rewrite them from scratch (well, almost from scratch). I’ve finished new versions of the first two chapters and they’re looking much better (of course, I’m kind of biased).
Let’s see how it all works out.