Writing the first chapter, let alone the first few lines of your story, is intimidating whether you’ve been an author for years or are just starting out. After all, what you write on that first page will be seen and judged, possibly found wanting, by readers interested in buying your book.
Thankfully, there are a few simple rules and steps you can follow that will help you inject excitement into your story–the first three deal with setup, and the last two with the actual writing of your story. You want readers to turn the page, and when they can’t–especially if it’s on Amazon’s ‘Look Inside’ feature–you want them to buy.
So, what’s the secret? How do you take your story from drab to fab?
In this article, you will learn:
- The importance of an outline and understanding what has to happen and why
- How to craft a character people care about
- About what ‘conflict’ is, what ‘stakes’ are, and what action on the first page looks like
- How to craft a successful hook for your story
- What does and doesn’t work for the first page of a story
Table of contents
- Step 1: Set up Your Outline for Success
- Step 2: Make Your Characters Likable
- Step 3: Check out What Other Authors Are Doing
- Step 4: Write Your Hook
- Step 5: Write an Action-Filled First Scene
- Final Thoughts
Step 1: Set up Your Outline for Success
As James Patterson would say, “Everything needs to be in the outline.” Since he’s one of the highest-earning authors in the world, we should probably listen to him, wouldn’t you say? What your outline looks like is up to you, but you should have notes, at the very least, on where you want your story to go.
If you want to write a great first scene, you need to know what happens in it and how that fits into the overall outline of the book. So here’s the basic idea: every chapter or scene you write must move the plot along.
How do you do this? By engineering it so that whatever happens in that scene either helps your main character take a step closer to their ultimate plot goal or places an obstacle in their way.
You need to know:
- Your character's motivation and goal.
- Their conflict. What is your character's external conflict? What’s their internal conflict? Conflict is their baggage–a hung-up they can’t get over.
- What you want to happen in the first scene. The setting, the action, and the consequence.
- How it fits into the plot. Does this first scene drive your character toward the inciting event–the event that starts the characters on their journey? Or is it the inciting event of the plot?
Your first chapter will consist of scene (what happens, what action occurs) and sequel (the consequences of that action and what it means for your character).
Let’s look at an example
- Jessi-Mae, our main character, wants to go home and put her feet up. That’s her goal.
- She’s tired after a long day of work and she can’t afford to pay the rent because she works at a bar (not exactly her dream job). That’s her external conflict.
- Jessie-Mae feels small and worthless after her good-for-nothing boyfriend showed up and dumped her in front of all her co-workers at the bar. That’s a bit of her internal conflict.
- Jessie-Mae steps out of the bar and finds that the world has turned into a post-apocalyptic mess. There are zombies everywhere. And one of them just so happens to be her ex-boyfriend.
- Jessie’s got to run for her life or he’ll destroy her physically, just as he did emotionally. This is the action.
- If Jessie-Mae can’t get home in time, she’ll get eaten. Also, her entire world has been turned upside down. These are Jessie-Mae’s stakes (what she stands to lose).
It’s important to remember that Jessie-Mae’s initial goal doesn’t have to be huge. It just has to be something that incites movement in the story and allows you to introduce some conflict and action.
Equally, the action in a scene doesn’t have to be an immediate punch to the face. It can be a different kind of action. It can be a woman running into her ex-lover, the one who left her at the altar and who she’s never quite gotten over.
Stakes don’t always have to be external either. In fact, the strongest stakes for a story are usually the internal ones. What emotional result will there be of your character losing what they want the most?
Most of all, it’s important to involve your conflict at the start of your story. For Jessie-Mae, it’s the fact that she’s just been hurt emotionally by her boyfriend, and now he’s a zombie who wants to eat her face. Fun!
Automatically start with pulse-pounding action like a physical fight scene. Figure out what constitutes excitement in your genre and use tension and conflict to lure the reader in.
Step 2: Make Your Characters Likable
Your readers might come for the story, but they stay for the characters. That’s what story is. It’s the journey of someone a reader wants to know more about — through trials and tribulations, through dark times and right up to the climactic resolution of the end goal.
The trick is crafting characters people want to read more about. And showing them off as those likable characters at the very start of your story.
To make a character likable, you have to make them relatable. Sympathetic. This doesn’t mean they have to be too sweet or soft. They should definitely have a backbone. It means that readers should relate to them.
A good example is Joker from DC Comics–you understand why he is the way he is, and that makes him sympathetic, but you still don’t agree with his actions. Joker isn’t necessarily a likable character, but he’s a great villain because he’s got a backstory that makes sense.
General Rules for Character Building:
- Characters should be confident, and, if they’re not, have a redeeming quality.
- They should be flawed, but those flaws shouldn’t outweigh their good points.
- They should struggle, but show grit and backbone in the face of adversity.
- It helps to make characters spunky. A good sense of humor is great. Dry wit, even better. Think Han Solo in Star Wars.
- They should have a conflict that’s relatable in some way to their readers.
- Give your characters a chance to shine in your first scene. They can either save someone, stand up to someone, or show their sense of humor.
- They must be human. Not in the sense that you can’t make great alien characters, ha, but that they have human qualities. They’re flawed and emotional, and if they’re emotionless, there’s a deep-seated reason for that.
Here are a few great resources on creating characters likable that you can check out:
- “26 Ways to Write Instantly Likable Characters”
- “What Makes a Character Likable?”
- “5 Ways to Make Your Protagonist More Likable”
I’m thinking that my Jessie-Mae from above will have a wicked sense of humor. She also threw a glass of water in her ex-boyfriend’s face when he screamed at her in front of her employees. In fact, that might be a great opening scene…
Make your character a Mary-Sue. A Mary-Sue is a character who can do everything without any trouble at all. Mary’s a high school girl, but she knows how to fly a helicopter. She can sprint without running out of breath — and parkouring up a wall? Forget about it.
Characters should always have weak areas and flaws. Let’s make it so Jessie-Mae’s spunky, but man does she suck at cardio. That’s a complication because she’s about to be chased by her zombified ex-boyfriend. Uh-oh.
Step 3: Check out What Other Authors Are Doing
If you’re struggling for inspiration or just unsure on how to start your story, check out what other authors in your genre are doing. Read their stories and draw inspiration from them. If you like how a story starts and were instantly drawn in, ask yourself these questions:
- Why am I feeling this?
- What do I like about the main character?
- What are the main character’s best and worst qualities?
- Why do I like the main character?
- What’s happening in the scene that’s moving the story along?
- What do I think could be improved about the scene?
- Which part of the scene hooked me in?
Make notes about several best-sellers in your genre and compare them. Why were they such major successes? Do you see any common themes? Usually, reading these stories will inspire you to get started on your own.
You can find other authors in your genre by searching for them on Amazon or use the Kindle Store browse categories. Or you can use Publisher Rocket’s competitor analysis tool to find the best-selling authors in your genre.
Copy the authors you read, but understand what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. Pinpoint how they made their characters likable and why it’s working or not working for you. Writing is subjective, of course, but best-sellers are popular for a reason–they hook you in.
Step 4: Write Your Hook
The most crucial part of starting your story is hooking your readers. You want them to keep reading, right? So, how do you do that?
The basics are simple. You need your hook to make the reader want to know more about either your characters, what’s happening in the scene, or the world they’re in.
Here are a couple of ways you can do that, with an example for each (following on with our Jessie-Mae theme):
Ask a Question
Asking a question is one of the easiest ways to draw readers in, but you have to be sure the question is interesting, relates to your story, and leaves them wanting the answer to it.
“If Jessie-Mae could've asked one question it would have been: who was that zombie in the window? And why was he licking the glass?”
Introduce humor and a hint of what’s to come where you can. If it suits your genre.
A shock statement immediately grabs the reader's attention and isn’t what they expect. You can juxtaposition normality with something totally out of left field to accomplish this.
“My ex-boyfriend, the sleaze who just broke up with me half an hour ago, is a zombie. No seriously.”
Set the Scene (Only If the Scene Is Unique)
As long as what’s going on in the scene is unique, you don’t need to start with a statement or action, but with the scene itself. Let’s try it.
“Jessie-Mae stood behind the bar and watched the crowd swarm by–bloodied faces, missing arms and legs. If she hadn’t already pinched herself, she’d have been sure she was dreaming. Or having a nightmare. Yeah, definitely a nightmare.”
The idea is to leave the reader wanting more. To know more, specifically.
You can also take a look at some of the best lines in literature for inspiration, especially those in your genre. Here are a few great ones.
“Just because a piece of advice was given by a serial killer didn’t necessarily mean that it was wrong.”–After Darkness Falls: A Vampire Romance by May Sage.
“Keeping a job involves a few simple rules: Arrive on time. Work hard. And don’t assault customers.”–Three Mages and a Margarita by Annette Marie.
“Every freaking bone in my body feels as if it’s just been used as a drumstick.”–Accidental Shield by Nicole Snow.
“The dead walk among us.”–The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Deadby Max Brooks.
All of these first lines are hooks. They grab the reader and draw them in.
Write a statement that doesn’t agree with your character’s internal landscape. Your hook must be enticing, but it must be genuine as well because you don’t want your readers to feel betrayed when they read on and realize that the start of the story wasn’t really connected with the rest of it.
Step 5: Write an Action-Filled First Scene
Keep up the pace. Move through the scene with action and dialogue–once again, this doesn’t have to be an all-out fight scene, or even one where the protagonist is darting away from zombies. But something has to happen. And whatever it is, it must drive the plot forward and affect your character’s goal in some way.
An easy trick to use is to put an obstacle in the path of your character and his/her goal.
They want that big promotion at work? Whoops, they’ve just discovered that their direct competition is their long-lost ex-boyfriend.
They’ve got to get back to their house because they’re late on the rent? Hello, zombie horde!
Any form of action that still shows off your character's conflict, goal and personality is great. It doesn’t have to be completely plot-changing, but it must move the reader forward and the story on to the next chapter.
Start your story with a write-up of your character’s history. Back story is a secret you should hold close to your chest. Only let out little bits for the reader to digest at a time, so that the mystery is still alive. It’s the same with meeting someone for the first time. Do you immediately infodump your entire history on them? Probably not. Be mysterious and fun.
If you follow these steps, you’ll have the foundations down to start writing a good novel. Likely, it will take a few tries before you create something you think is good, but I urge you to keep writing and practicing. All you need to do is persevere and practice. Isn’t that inspiring?