Your first chapter is one of the most important parts of your writing. It is, by definition, the first thing that your readers will see—and if it isn’t good enough to grab them, they won’t carry on. There is also quite a lot of conflicting information about what to actually include in it. Those 10 things you need to include in your first chapter type lists often contain a lot of helpful information, but there are so many of them that say different things they can end up being quite confusing. The one thing that needs to be in your first chapter is this: your first chapter’s content.
I know that’s not particularly helpful but it’s pretty much what you need to do. There are far too many things that you need to set up in your opening and the only person who knows exactly what needs to be in there is you.
The problem with actual advice on what to include is that there really isn’t a one-size-fits-all option that will apply to every book. I could tell you that you should include your main character in your first chapter, but then you read a crime thriller where the first chapter depicts a murder, and the protagonist does not appear until the third. This works really well for some books and the only character detail you get is that of somebody who is never again relevant in the story, other than as a corpse. Just about every rule has a very valid counter argument depending on your story.
With all that considered, there are some things that, generally speaking, you should not do.
Too Many Characters
Your book will have a lot of characters in it, most likely, and quite a few of them will be relevant to the plot. The temptation is to include everyone as early as possible. The problem with this is that it gets confusing. Most people aren’t going to be able to remember a lot of detail in such a short space of time. So, if you have a limited amount of detail retention to work with (which you do) it’s going to be much more beneficial to use that to give the reader details about one or two main characters. They’re the important ones, after all.
There isn’t a number as to how many characters is too many, but if you’re worried that there’s too many there probably are. To find out, separate your first chapter from the rest of the book and change everybody’s names. Leave it a little while, reread and try and remember everyone and who they are, with the new names. If you can very easily then you’re fine. If you’re struggling then your readers will.
Too Much Information
Much like too many characters, overdoing the information creates a barrier that readers are hard-pressed to get through. Backstory, world building, or historic events; it’s too much to absorb in such a short space of time. Stick to what’s important at that moment, so the reader just discovers what they need to know as they join the story.
Too Much Worry
Your first chapter is going to vary greatly as you write your book. It doesn’t matter how much you’ve plotted or planned, there will be changes that crop up. Your opening chapter should reflect that. So, in your first draft, cobble something together that vaguely makes sense and move on. When you get to the second draft and you understand not only your story as a complete entity but also your characters, you’ll have a much clearer idea of what needs to be included. So worry about it later when you have the tools to do it justice.
Your first chapter is important but it’s not the ultimate test of a writer that some people make it out to be. It’s hard to get right, but so is the rest of your book. So don’t worry about your first chapter as a separate thing, just focus on writing a great book.
© 2018 Davina Chime
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Davina Chime is a Thanet-born hopeless romantic.