4 Steps To Writing The First Chapter Your Book Deserves


First impressions are extremely important when it comes to meeting people, and the same goes for books. How many times have you come across a book with an intriguing cover and decent blurb, only to crack it open to page one and find yourself instantly disappointed? 

There’s a lot riding on the first chapter of your work. It’s the first impression a reader gets, and it’s often the deciding factor as to whether a reader buys your book. Having a killer start to your story is a must. 

In this article, we’re going to talk about your first chapter. We’ll go over how your stories should start, what your first chapter should include, and how to write an outstanding first chapter to hook your reader and, ideally, get them to not only buy your book, but read it all the way through! 

This guide to writing the first chapter contains:

  1. How to start a nonfiction first chapter
  2. How to start a fiction first chapter
  3. What to include in the first chapter of a nonfiction book
  4. What to include in the first chapter of a fiction book
  5. How to write a good first chapter step-by-step
  6. Need some help?

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How do you start the first chapter?

Let’s start at the very beginning (I hear it’s a very good place to start). How should your book begin? The answer varies depending on whether you’re writing nonfiction or fiction, so let’s go over some genre specifics. 

Nonfiction

In a nonfiction book, your first chapter should accomplish these three things:

1 – Introduce the topic 

The first chapter of a nonfiction book is usually called an introduction, which is a pretty good indicator of what you’re meant to do. You’re going to want to introduce the topic of your book right off the bat. If you’re writing about your childhood in rural Alaska, for example, the start of your book ought to set the scene. If you’re writing about a certain type of plane used in World War One, this should be mentioned at the start.

2 – Establish credibility 

You also want the reader to know why you’re an authority on the subject. If you’re a psychologist and you’re writing about relationship advice, mentioning that you’re a psychologist early on will give you credibility. The reader will know that you’re not just some random person spouting their opinions—you’re a professional, you’ve studied this, and you have actual advice to offer. 

3 – Hook the reader 

People talk about hooks in fiction, but it’s just as important in a nonfiction book. After all, nonfiction should also be interesting, even if it sets out to accomplish something different than fiction. You want your reader invested in learning about your topic, and that means you need to hook them early to keep them reading. 

Fiction

If you’re writing fiction, you’ll want to focus on three key elements: your first sentence, your first paragraph, and your first chapter. 

First sentence 

There’s a lot of pressure on the first sentence of a novel. While you don’t want it to be too heavy-handed or out of place, you do want it to be interesting and indicative of the rest of the novel. You want to establish the tone of your story as quickly as possible to let the reader know what they’re in for. 

First paragraph 

Like the first sentence, the first paragraph should establish the tone and some sort of conflict. It should also introduce a character, and preferably one of our main characters. We should at least meet someone who we will follow throughout the story—again, remember that the first chapter of your story is the first taste of what’s to come. You want this first page, especially, to let the reader know what’s coming. 

First chapter 

The first chapter, on the whole, has a lot of work to do. It should give us our setting, establish the tone of the story, introduce our main character or characters, and at least hint at our main conflict. Sometimes the main conflict doesn’t really kick off until the end of act two, or a few chapters in—that’s totally fine. But the first chapter should identify a problem that the rest of the book will solve, and this problem should tie to the overarching plot

Elements of a first chapter (what should be included in the first chapter)

Now that you know what you need to include in your first chapter, let’s get a little more into how to incorporate these elements effectively. 

Nonfiction

How to introduce the topic 

Like I mentioned before, nonfiction should be interesting. This means you want to introduce your topic in an interesting, engaging way. Starting your book with a stiff, technical description of a World War One fighter jet might be okay if you’re writing for a very specific academic audience, but if you’re writing for the general public, you’ll want to jazz it up a bit. 

The key thing here is not to bog your reader down. You don’t want to give them everything up front and overwhelm them with your entire knowledge from the start—you’ve got the whole book to explain yourself, so briefly sum up what you’ll be talking about and what the reader can expect moving forward. Then, make sure you actually move forward. 

How to establish credibility 

You might have a direct credential that lends your nonfiction book some credibility, like in the psychologist example I gave earlier. But if you’re not an accredited expert in your field, or if you’re writing something like a memoir, you can still establish credibility in the first chapter. 

Giving your reader a sample of your knowledge base is one way to do this—again, you don’t want to dump everything at once, but letting your reader know early that you know what you’re talking about will give you some credibility. 

Another way to lend yourself credibility? Write compelling prose. If your writing is solid and engaging, your reader will trust you to tell them something interesting.  

How to hook the reader 

Here are three quick tips for hooking your reader in the first chapter of your nonfiction book:  

  1. Start your first chapter with a compelling anecdote that introduces your topic. 
  2. Start your first chapter with a compelling statistic about your topic, which allows you to segue into an introduction to your book. 
  3. Start your first chapter with a problem involving your topic, which the book promises to solve. 

Fiction

We talked a little bit about how your first sentence, paragraph, and chapter are all important in a novel, but let’s talk about how to really make the most of these first few pages. 

Introduce your main characters 

Introduce your characters as naturally as possible. Avoid cliches like having two unnamed characters introduce themselves on page one. If you’re writing in first person, we should immediately know the names of everyone the POV character knows, and same goes for third person limited. For stories set in third person limited, we should also know the main character’s name immediately. 

Introduce your setting 

By the end of the first chapter, the reader should have a solid idea of what this world looks like and what sorts of challenges the people in it face. Is this a high fantasy world, or is it a spaceship? If we’re in contemporary America, what sort of town is this, who thrives here, and who struggles to make ends meet? 

Conflict should be firmly rooted in setting, so establishing setting in your first chapter will help give your reader a sense of the difficulties to come. 

Establish tone 

I touched on this earlier, but you also want to kick off your story with the appropriate tone. If you’re writing a grim, harrowing horror novel, your first chapter should set up the creepy atmosphere the reader will be seeing more of as they read. Tone also helps flesh out setting, and combining the two will help immerse your reader as quickly as possible. By the end of chapter one, the reader should know whether this is going to be a lighthearted romp or a tour through hell. 

Introduce conflict 

By the end of the first chapter, the reader should be introduced to some conflict. Ideally, this connects to the broader plot, and even more ideally, you’ll have had the chance to show off the character’s wants (what the character thinks they want) and their needs (what the character actually needs). 

How to write a good first chapter step-by-step

Whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, here’s a step-by-step guide to make sure your first chapter is a success. 

Step 1 – Have a solid outline 

Outlining your book before you start will help you in a million ways when it comes time to draft. An outline tells you where you’re going, which helps you stay on track, and it also tells you where to start. Having a clear, confident starting point makes all the difference in writing a clear, confident first chapter. 

Step 2 – Write a killer opening sentence to hook the reader 

Your first sentence is your reader’s very, very first impression of your book. While it doesn’t necessarily have to do everything, it should be doing all it can to hook your reader. 

Pull out all the stops here. Open on a compelling conflict that relates to our main characters and the overall themes, or start with a powerful, evocative description. Shock the reader with a surprising statistic or show them how your topic relates to them in a way they might not realize. 

Step 3 – End with a question the book promises to answer 

At the end of your first chapter, your reader should have a ton of questions that can only be answered by reading the rest of the book. Broadly speaking, they should be thinking “what’s going to happen?” 

Think of the first chapter as a promise. You’re setting up a tone, themes, characters, and setting, and you’re promising that the rest of the book will deliver. End the first chapter with a problem or a question that makes your reader want to learn more.

Step 4 – Perfect your first page 

The first line is super important, but it’s not absolutely everything. A reader might not put down a book if the first line doesn’t absolutely shock them. However, the first page is vital. If a reader decides to flip the first page, it’s much more likely that they’ll keep reading. Flipping the page means they’re interested, and that means you have to get them interested on page one. 

When your book is finished, polish your first page—and, really, your first few chapters—to an absolute shine. Make sure you’ve got strong prose, compelling hooks, and absolutely no errors. Use the tips included here to make sure your first page is unique, interesting, and engineered to keep your reader eager to read your story all the way through. 

Need some help?

Grab our free outline templates for fiction or non-fiction below.


FREE TOOL

Book Outline Template Generator

Choose your Fiction or Nonfiction book type below to get your free chapter by chapter outline!

Enter your details below and get your pre-formatted outline in your inbox and start writing today!

CONGRATULATIONS

Thanks for submitting! Check your email for your book outline template.

In the meantime, check out our Book Outline Challenge.

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Gloria Russell

Gloria Russell is a freelance writer and author living in Colorado. When she isn’t writing short stories or critiquing manuscripts, she’s planning her next road trip and heeding the whims of her cat, Ham.

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