Someone once told me the first paragraph is the most valuable real estate in your book. I agree with that, and I’ll even go so far as to say the first few pages will make or break your novel. I’ve heard agents and editors say they knew after reading the first two pages whether the story would be compelling enough to continue or not. One agent told me she knew after reading only one page. Most importantly, if you don’t do it properly, your reader will stop reading.
No pressure, but I’m not exaggerating. It’s important. And there are certain key elements you need to have in this chapter, no matter the genre.
1. A GREAT HOOK
The hook is the first sentence and the first words your reader will get from you. Make those words unforgettable.
2. OPENING IMAGE
The opening image is a visual that represents key elements and gives the reader insight into the heart of the story. It must have power and impact, and it should mean something significant. It’s a snapshot of the main character’s daily life (and possibly their problem) before the adventure commences.
Examples of solid opening images:
A. Harry Potter living in the cupboard under the stairs.
B. Katniss Everdeen hunting in the forest with her bow and arrow.
C. Elle Woods getting ready for her big date with her boyfriend, Warner.
D. John McClane clutching his armrest on the plane as he lands in LA.
The setup occurs when you expand on the “before” snapshot of the opening image. Your character’s life might be great (like Elle’s) or awful (like Harry’s and Katniss’s), but it doesn’t matter. No matter how wonderful your protagonist’s life might be, there has to be something missing. Something significant. Your job here is to present the main character’s world and hint at what that missing part is—even if the character doesn’t fully grasp it themselves.
4. THEME STATED
This usually happens during the setup, and the theme is the essence of your story. It’s what your book is all about at its core. It’s the message of the book, and it involves an essential truth about the main character. Usually, this truth is spoken to the protagonist or in their presence, but they don’t understand it…not yet at least. They need to learn and grow and change in order to have the personal experience and context to embrace it fully.
This is the moment when the life of your character changes completely. It’s the phone call in the middle of the night or the surprise marriage proposal. It’s getting fired from a job, being dumped by the love of your life, winning something, or losing everything. It can be whatever you decide, but after it happens, the “before” world is gone, and change is coming.
A. In Harry Potter, it’s when the first owl arrives at the Dursley’s home with the invitation for Harry to go to Hogwarts.
B. In The Hunger Games, it’s when Primrose, Katniss’s sweet little sister, is chosen as a tribute in the reaping.
C. In Legally Blonde, as you probably guessed, it’s when Warner breaks up with Elle.
D. And in Die Hard, it’s when shots are fired at Nakatomi Plaza. That doesn’t happen until a bit later when all the different story lines (John’s, Holly’s, and Hans’s), have been established, but it’s the catalyst because it’s what changes everything.
That’s it for Chapter One. Is your brain sufficiently full? Do you hate me yet? Take heart, dear writer. The first chapter is the hardest part.
Well, kind of.
The good news is you only have the rest of the book left to write.
(Excerpt taken from my book, "The Reformed Pantser's Guide to Plotting")