It is a truth universally acknowledged that first impressions are everything. And, boy, can they be daunting!
There are arguably a handful of first impressions your book will make on readers. The blurb on the back, the art on the cover, maybe reviews or word-of-mouth recommendations—and, of course, the first chapter of your story.
Nailing the first chapter is crucial. It's here that readers will begin to orient themselves within the world you've invited them into and get to know the characters they'll be spending time with. They're getting a feel for the tone and testing the waters and if it cannot pique their interest, chances are they won't want to dive all the way in.
So how do you get them to take that plunge?
Here is a list of everything your book's first chapter must accomplish in order to keep your readers turning the page.
Introduce Your Protagonist(s)
Protagonists are the heart of the story and are the thing that most resonate with readers. Their enjoyment of a piece of writing often correlates to how well they relate to the characters and their struggles along the journey.
This connection needs to be built up from the get-go. In your first chapter, you need to introduce readers to your main character (or at a minimum, at least one protagonist if you have a larger cast).
You don't need to include every detail of their past here. In fact, it's usually better if that stuff is doled out more gradually.
Think of the first chapter like a handshake when you're meeting someone for the first time. If your greeting is answered with a long infodump chronicling everything that's ever happened to that other person, things are probably going to get uncomfortable as you try to process everything you just heard.
Instead, give your reader a quick profile of your character. Enough details to make the reader care.
A Glimpse Of Their Everyday Life
Plot is the result of a change to your protagonist's life. It can be because they desire or need something, are threatened, are thrown into a situation, or any other conflict.
While you can certainly drop your readers into the midst of the action, I personally like to use the first chapter as a look into what the average day looks like for the protagonist. This way, when the conflict comes along and shakes things up, readers get a better sense of just how significant of a change it is.
In most of my romance WIPs, my love interests do not know each other prior to the story (specifically the meet-cute). My first chapter tells readers about one person's individual conflict/subplot, then I'll do the same for the second protagonist and their conflict/subplot after a chapter break or in a separate chapter depending on what fits the needs of that WIP.
Remember, even though your character is going about their day-to-day life in this first chapter, they need to be taking action that moves the plot forward. There must be a purpose.
A Mini Guided Tour Of The Setting
This goes for both the place and time your story is set in. This may be the only setting of your story or the first stop on a lengthy agenda.
Not only should your first chapter introduce the protagonist, it also needs to give your reader a chance to get their bearings. You've brought them into an unfamiliar setting that needs to be made familiar to them.
Show, Don't Tell is going to be key.
Take your reader on a mini guided tour of the setting. Paint the scene by playing to the senses with vivid detail.
This might be the chill and salty air by the coastline at night, a character noticing the oil running low in their lantern, or their spaceship needing more fuel, the crowds of NYC, or the peace in a fictional village in a far-off land.
And one of my favorite tips, reference how your character is experiencing the world around them. The things they notice or what you want to draw your reader's attention to. Even if you're writing in a third-person perspective, identifying key features that would stick out to your protagonist can help readers learn more about the way they see the world around them.
Set Up The Conflict
This is where things start to get juicy, and it can happen at any point during the first chapter.
Once you have given readers an idea of what is normal for your character and their world, it's time to turn those tables.
Conflict (and efforts to resolve it) keeps the story going. It's the reason everything is happening. Your first chapter needs to establish what, exactly, that conflict is and how it is impacting your protagonist.
You can limit this to a hint at what troubles the future holds or state it explicitly. The antagonist might make a grand entrance, or may simply be alluded to. Regardless, it needs to be defined and compelling enough to garner your reader's interest.
The Dangling Carrot
Lastly, perhaps the most important thing your first chapter must do is to hook your readers.
Having laid the groundwork and given your readers enough knowledge to get a sense of what the protagonist is up against, you've extended your hand to them, inviting them to come along for the ride.
But your work isn't done quite yet. Now, you need to convince them to take that journey with the characters.
What's in it for them? Why do they care?
A common method of hooking the reader is posing a question they won't get to solve immediately. The only way they'll get their answers is to read on.
You want to get the gears in their head turning. Dangle that carrot in front of them. Sprinkle the breadcrumbs.
Spark their curiosity and keep them engaged.
Your novel's first chapter has plenty of jobs to do, the most important of which is getting your readers hooked. But their importance can create an overwhelming pressure to get them right.
You don't need to be afraid of or overwhelmed by them, though!
The first chapter of your novel is kind of like the appetizers at a restaurant, giving your readers a taste of what is to come. If the mozzarella sticks and blooming onions are a letdown, that doesn't bode well for the steak or salmon.
But if the appetizers are good, you're left hungry and eager for more.
In all fairness, the only mozzarella stick I've ever disliked was the time I had one that was just a hollow shell lacking the actual cheese.
And if your first chapter is lacking that rich, gooey, stringy goodness, your readers won't want to take that bite.
And now I'm craving mozzarella sticks...