Wednesday, January 29, 2020

The Role of Your First Chapter

The first chapter is more than the opening pages of your story. The functions are many and sometimes it may feel like mission impossible as you revise and rewrite. Who knew the burdens and challenges inherent in our first chapter? 

The roles of our first chapter are listed below. Some of my examples are personal favorites or well known titles.

1. Grab the editor’s, agent’s or reader’s attention by your compelling first few lines, sentences and paragraphs.

           In THE BOOK THIEF by Markus Zusak, his sixth line reads “You are going to die.” What? Why?! You are immediately intrigued, curious, maybe even frightened, but you keep reading.

2. Introduce the main characters

In THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN by Paula Hawkins, Rachel is a heavy drinker, divorced, and unhappy. She lives in Cathy’s flat, a former school friend, and frequently leaves drunken messes that Cathy cleans up. We learn about Rachel’s former life with Tom, her ex-husband, who she still loves. Rachel doesn’t respect boundaries and drunk calls and texts him which causes problems between him and his new wife, Anna. Rachel is obsessed with a couple that she watches through the train window at a signal stop. She calls them Jess and Jason and has invented a perfect, happy life for them.

       3. Hints at theme

In THE GREAT GILLY HOPKINS, a Newbery Honor, by Katherine Paterson, we learn in the first chapter Miss Ellis, the social worker, has placed Gilly with multiple foster families desperately trying to find a home for her. The theme is about love and belonging.

       4. Sets the tone

Is your story humorous with silly plotlines line the CAPTAIN UNDERPANTS books by Dav Pilkey or is it a serious subject like gangs and police violence in THE HATE U GIVE by Angie Thomas? 

       5. Lays down the foundation for conflicts or problems that will arise later.

In THE HATE U GIVE by Angie Thomas, Starr and her friend, Khalil, suspected of being a drug dealer, run out of a party after shots are fired by a gang member. They drive away, but see the flashing lights of a siren behind them. We have a shooting in a black neighborhood and a cop pulling over the main character and her friend, what could go wrong?

Once you've completed your novel, you may have to revise your first chapter to include or strengthen one or more of the elements above. Sometimes, it is because your novel has wandered and what you intended to write about has changed. Now you have to revisit the first chapter and make sure you've planted enough seeds to ensure that it will grow in the right direction.

You can do it!


  1. Interesting post! The examples effectively illustrate your points. Yes, we really need to spend extra time on our first chapters. Thanks for sharing, Valerie!

  2. I always appreciate when there are concrete examples; it drives the point home. And I'll admit, there are times when I'm reading an author's blog or an instructional post on writing and I need the example!

    Thanks for reading, Cindy!