How to Start a Story: Your First Line, Page, and Chapter

The start of your story is possibly the most important part of your book. Sure, a satisfying ending and avoiding a muddy middle are also important, but the beginning is your first impression. You want it to be good.

In addition to hooking the reader, the start of your novel is also a selling point, since Amazon and other retailers allow readers to read a preview of your novel.

So getting those first words optimized for maximum interest is essential. Do it wrong, and you will lose sales.

In this article, you will learn:
  1. The purpose of your first chapter
  2. How to optimize the first line, first page, and first chapter
  3. Mistakes to avoid in your first chapter
  4. Examples of great opening lines

The Purpose of Your First Chapter

What exactly is the purpose of your first chapter?

Many authors simply feel that the first chapter is merely the start of a good story, but there is so much more to it than that. A first chapter is the reader's first introduction to the world, the characters, the plot, and most importantly it sets the tone for the book.

A well written first chapter will do the following:

  1. Hook the reader
  2. Make promises
  3. Connect readers to the characters
  4. Sell the book

Let's look at each of these in turn.

1. Hook The Reader

The primary purpose of a first chapter is to hook the reader's attention and draw them into the story. It is the author's opportunity to create a sense of intrigue or suspense that will make the reader want to keep reading. 

The opening line or paragraph should be attention-grabbing and establish a mood or atmosphere that draws the reader in. A first chapter that hooks the reader is the key to getting them to read on.

2. Make Promises

Your first chapter makes promises to the reader. It gives them an idea of what to expect from the book.

For example, if your book is a sassy ROM calm, you don't want to start in a dark and gloomy setting.

Additionally, if you are writing a fantasy, you want to make sure that the fantastical elements of your book are on display from page one.

3. Connecting Readers to Characters

Another important purpose of the first chapter is to connect the reader to the characters. The reader should feel invested in the characters' journey and care about what happens to them. This can be achieved by giving the characters a clear goal, showing their strengths and weaknesses, and creating an emotional connection with the reader. 

This is the basic premise of the book “Save the Cat” which argues that the main character needs to do something that proves they're a good person, something to connect them to the reader.

If the reader can relate to the characters and their struggles, they are more likely to stay engaged with the story.

4. Sell the Book

Finally, the first chapter is a key part of selling your book… Literally. When someone views your book landing page on Amazon or other retailers, they have the option to “look inside” and read a sample of the book.

If that sample does not deliver, that person is unlikely to continue and buy your book.

On the flip side, a strong opening can entice the reader to purchase the book, recommend it to others, and leave positive reviews. 

In other words, the first chapter is a powerful tool for marketing and can make or break the success of a book.

Start With Your Hook

Starting with your hook is essential to capturing your reader's attention from the very beginning of your story. It's the moment that sets the tone and establishes the narrative's direction. 

Here are some ways to create a strong hook in your opening chapter:

1. Have A Compelling Image

A vivid and compelling image can set the stage for your story and grab your reader's attention. It can be an unusual setting, an unusual character, or a unique situation that immediately captures the reader's imagination. 

By painting a picture with words, you can create an immediate connection between the reader and the story.

2. Start Immediately with Action/Conflict

This was something I learned the first time I had a book professionally edited. I had conflicts in my first chapter, but it didn't start until a few paragraphs in.

My editor had me simply cut the first few paragraphs and dive immediately into the conflict.

This doesn't have to be the overarching conflict of the story, but simply a moment of action, a thrilling event, or a dramatic encounter. By starting with action, you can quickly establish the stakes of the story and create a sense of urgency that keeps the reader invested.

3. Take Unexpected Twists

Often, a story starts by introducing a moment of “not normal” to your character's ordinary world. And this type of unexpected twist in the opening chapter can be an excellent way to hook the reader's interest. 

This can be a surprising revelation, an unexpected turn of events, a disturbance of the status quo, or anything that challenges the character's (or reader's) assumptions.

4. Establish an Emotion

Establishing an emotion early on can help your reader connect with your story and characters. You can use language and imagery to create a mood or atmosphere that evokes a specific emotional response from the reader. 

This can be anything from fear and suspense to excitement and curiosity. By connecting with the reader on an emotional level, you can keep them invested in the story.

5. Consider Dialogue

Believe it or not, dialogue is actually an effective tool for hooking your reader's attention, often because it is a great way to immediately establish the central conflict or reveal important information about the story.

By using dialogue, you can also create a sense of immediacy and establish the character's voices early on in the narrative.

While you certainly don't always have to rely on dialogue as your opening, there is absolutely nothing wrong with using it.

First Page

While the hook is important in the first few lines of your book, it often isn't enough to do everything that you need to do.

But your first page, on the other hand, should be enough to accomplish everything you want to hook the reader. The following are some great ways to optimize your first page to hook the reader, and establish your promises for the rest of the book.

1. Create a Mystery

One effective way to engage your reader from the first page is to create a mystery. You can do this by starting with an intriguing question, a puzzling situation, or a seemingly inexplicable event. 

This is obviously true of mystery and suspense novels, but an intriguing mystery can be utilized at the beginning of a book in any genre. Like romance, not all books will be centered around this mystery, but a healthy dose of mystery can almost always add to the plot.

2. Introduce the Main Character

Your first page is the best time to introduce your main character. The only exception to this rule is if you use a prologue, otherwise you want the readers to immediately know who the main character is, and what they are about.

This not only helps the reader become invested in the character's journey, but also helps them avoid confusion.

3. Establish the Setting and Tone

The setting and tone of your story are crucial elements in establishing the atmosphere of your narrative. By describing the environment and creating a sense of place, you can immerse your reader in the story's world. 

You can also establish the tone of your narrative through the use of language and imagery, creating a mood that sets the stage for the rest of the story.

4. Establish Point of View

Establishing the point of view on the first page can help the reader understand the narrative's perspective. It should immediately be clear whether you're using a first-person, third-person, or omniscient point of view

If this is not clear on the first page, point of view will become jarring for readers later on.

5. Establish an Attitude

This goes along with establishing tone, but if your character has some kind of quirky personality or voice, it's important to establish that as early as the first page.

This can be achieved through the use of language, dialogue, or action. By establishing an attitude, you can create a sense of voice that is unique to your story and characters.

First Chapter

The first chapter of a book is often the most critical part of the story. It sets the tone and establishes the narrative's direction, and it is the reader's first introduction to the world, the characters, and the plot. Here are some key points to consider when crafting the first chapter of your story:

As we've discussed, the first chapter of a book is often the most critical part of the story. Here are some key points to consider when crafting the first chapter of your story:

1. Establish the Disturbance

While the first chapter is often too early to bring in the inciting incident or main conflict of the story, it should start with an immediate disturbance.

This can be done by introducing a problem, a challenge, or a difficult situation that the main character must face. 

The point is that your character should say something unusual, some upset to the status quo.

2. Disproportionally Edit Chapter 1

The first chapter is so important that it may be worth investing a disproportionate amount of time and effort in editing and refining it. This can include making sure the language is clear and engaging, the pacing is appropriate, and the tone is consistent with the rest of the story. 

You might even want to invest in several editors to go over your first chapter to make sure there are absolutely no errors or ways you can improve.

By taking the time to edit the first chapter thoroughly, you can ensure that it is polished and effective at capturing the reader's attention.

3. End on a Cliff-hanger

Ending the first chapter on a cliff-hanger is a powerful way to keep the reader invested in the story. This can be done by introducing a new character, hinting at a larger force at work, or presenting a mystery or puzzle that the reader must solve. 

There are several ways you can effectively end on a cliff-hanger without irritating readers. These include:

  • Someone new appears: Introducing a new character can create anticipation and add unpredictability to the story.
  • A mystery or eureka moment: Presenting a mystery or eureka moment creates excitement and investment in the reader.
  • Hint at larger forces: Hinting at larger forces adds depth and mystery to the story, making the reader curious to learn more about the world created.

A Note About Prologues

Everything I've mentioned so far is relevant to chapter 1, but what if you have a prologue?

Prologues are a special case, and can often serve the functions of a first chapter, when the actual first chapter is unable to do so.

For example, sometimes it is difficult to establish the tone, when things start off radically different from where they end up.

So having a prologue can let you jump to a different part of your world and establish the tone there. This is particularly common in fantasy and science fiction, where the character starts in an “ordinary world”, but you need to demonstrate the power of magic or technology that would not be present in the character’s ordinary world until much later.

Prologues do not necessarily have to introduce the main character. Still, they should feature a significant character, often the villain, who is central to the story's conflict. By establishing the villain early on, the reader can better understand the stakes of the narrative and the forces at work that will drive the story forward. 

Another advantage of a prologue is that it can increase the stakes and suspense for the first chapter of the book. By introducing a significant event or conflict that will impact the rest of the story, the reader is immediately interested in how this will affect the main character.

Common Opening Mistakes

The opening chapter of a book is a critical part of the narrative, and it can be challenging to get it right. Here are some common mistakes that writers make when crafting their opening chapters:

1. The Exposition Dump

One of the most significant mistakes writers make is dumping exposition in the opening chapter. Starting with a lot of backstory or worldbuilding can be overwhelming for the reader and detract from the story's momentum. 

Instead, writers should focus on showing the story rather than telling it, allowing the narrative to unfold naturally.

Trust me, readers probably need to know far less than you think. All you have to do is simply drop them into the story (this is known as In Media Res) and let them piece together the world from there.

2. CATF (Character Alone, Thinking or Feeling)

CATF is a phrase coined by James Scott Bell, and stands for “Character Alone, Thinking or Feeling”.

This is a common way for authors to start the story, and it is not a good one. While it's important to establish the character's perspective, it's also crucial to create a sense of action and movement in the narrative.

So start with something actually happening, and not with your character thinking about it.

3. Dream Scenes

A lot of beginner authors will “cheat” by establishing tone and conflict with a dream scene, after which the main character will wake up and realize it was all a dream.

This is a cheap shot, as the reader will feel like they wasted that time because it wasn't real.

This is also the case with flashbacks, which you want to use sparingly, and never at the beginning of your first chapter.

4. Starting With the Weather

We are all familiar with the phrase “it was a dark and stormy night”. While this phrase was effective at the time, it has become cliché, and so has starting with the weather of any kind.

There are some ways that you can establish tone with weather descriptions, but we recommend you do this only after you have established credibility as an author. If you are a beginner, it is not likely that you will do it well.

5. Waking Up

Starting a story with a character waking up can be a cliché that does not add anything to the narrative. Plus it has been so overused that many editors will reject a manuscript outright if it starts with the main character waking up.

Unless it is essential to the story, writers should avoid this tired opening and focus on starting the story in a more engaging way.

6. Happy Characters in Happy Land

When you start out your story, it is tempting to begin in a state of what we call “happy characters in happy land”. This is the character's “ordinary world”, but it can also be dull and uninteresting.

Conflict is the driving force of a story, and writers should focus on creating tension and stakes that will keep the reader engaged.

Therefore, this is why I emphasized strongly that you should start with the action, have a disturbance, etc.

7. Avoid Cliches

Often it is hard to know what a cliché is. Some good examples of clichés for openings are “it was a dark and stormy night” or “Once upon a time”.

Opening a story with a cliché can be unoriginal and unengaging. It's essential to create a unique opening that captures the reader's attention and sets the stage for the rest of the narrative. 

If you are unsure, an editor is crucial for helping you identify clichés and creating something more original.

Examples of Great Opening Lines

  1. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” – Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
  2. “Call me Ishmael.” – Herman Melville, Moby-Dick
  3. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…” – Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
  4. “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” – J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
  5. “All children, except one, grow up.” – J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan
  6. “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” – Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
  7. “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.” – Samuel Beckett, Murphy
  8. “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” – George Orwell, 1984
  9. “Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.” – Anne Tyler, Back When We Were Grownups
  10. “I am an invisible man.” – Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
  11. “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” – Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude
  12. “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” – William Gibson, Neuromancer
  13. “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York.” – Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
  14. “A screaming comes across the sky.” – Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow
  15. “It was a pleasure to burn.” – Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
  16. “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” – L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between
  17. “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.” – James Joyce, Ulysses
  18. “It was a dark and stormy night.” – Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford
  19. “The sun did not shine. It was too wet to play. So we sat in the house all that cold, cold, wet day.” – Dr. Seuss, The Cat in the Hat
  20. “The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting.” – Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage
  21. “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” – Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway
  22. “It was the day my grandmother exploded.” – Iain Banks, The Crow Road
  23. “It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking nineteen.” – George Orwell, 1984
  24. “I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and, as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story.” – Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome
  25. “I am an American, Chicago born – Chicago, that somber city – and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted.” – Saul Bellow, The Adventures of Augie March
  26. “It was a fine cry – loud and long – but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow.” – Toni Morrison, Sula
  27. “The sky was the color of cat vomit.” – John Green, Paper Towns
  28. “Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting.” – William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury
  29. “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” – Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle
  30. “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.” – Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, your creative writing hinges on a good opening to your entire story. This is true whether you’re writing a novel, a novella, or a short story

Be sure to include in your writing process enough time to really work on your great opening line, your opening scene, and your first chapter. Doing so will not only engage your audience, but it will help your main story as well.

Story writing is a difficult process, but if you can put your best foot forward with a great opening, the rest is likely to follow.

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