Let’s face it: first chapters are terrifically important — and tough to write well. Your first chapter can’t be a couch potato — it has to sing for its supper! A fantastic first sentence grabs readers and pulls them in — and a great first chapter keeps them reading.
In their submission guidelines for fiction, some agents want your first 5-to-10 pages; others want the first chapter or several chapters. But every agent I’ve heard talk about the query process stresses how important those first pages are — either they work or they don’t. There are two ways to look at this: as unwelcome pressure or as an invitation to really strut your writing style — to signal right up front to anyone and everyone reading your work that you’re a “contender.”
The Iowa Summer Writing Festival recently featured a workshop called, “Frontloading: The Critical First Chapter.” One of the key concepts covered: the idea that the first chapter is a “promise” to your readers about the kind of story you plan to tell and what they can expect you to deliver.
“Frontloading” your first chapter means giving the reader a clear idea of your story’s genre and its main conflict, a sense of the type of person the main character is, and how the world that he or she inhabits is changing. Giving readers all this early in the game makes them want to read on — denying it to them because you’re unclear about it yourself will frustrate and discourage them.
Seasoned writers often think of their first chapter as a warm up or as “notes” to themselves about the story they want to tell. Some writers routinely toss their first chapter; others revise it from scratch. Most focus on ratcheting up the action and cutting any exposition that slows down the story.
One tip: Ask people to read your first chapter as a standalone piece and then ask them to describe to you what it’s about and what they think is going to happen next. If they’re at all confused, then you know you’ve still got work to do.