The hardest part about writing a book is always the first chapter. We write it over and over again because there’s far too much pressure on a single sentence to capture attention, and a couple thousand words to do too many things. It’s the readers’ first impression of a story, and first impressions are important.
Here’s what a first chapter is supposed to accomplish-
- Introduce action and conflict
- No backstory
- Ground the reader in the setting
- No backstory
- Introduce an intriguing character
- No backstory
- Leave the reader wanting more
- And one last thing- No backstory
Yeah, maybe I made a big deal about the whole backstory thing, but it’s the one piece of advice you see all the time for first chapters. And it’s also the hardest.
So I compiled a list of actual first lines and chapters to share because I’m struggling with mine. Like I said, it’s something we rewrite over and over again to try and make it perfect.
Arguably the most famous series of all time. And I have to admit, I hated the first sentence and the majority of the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s (or Philosopher’s, depending on where you’re from) Stone.
“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”
It then goes on to list a bunch of stuff about the Dursleys, and it’s really boring and it’s not important. I read this book when I was seven years old. The beginning did not hold my attention.
Many years later, I can look back on it and understand why J.K. Rowling chose to start the book this way as it provides a nice contrast to the rest of the book, but it didn’t do much for me at the time. It took me a really long time to get into the book and enjoy the plot.
Does it introduce action and conflict? 1/2. After a really long intro, the conflict is introduced on page 9. Does it include backstory? 0/2. Yes, quite a bit, actually. Does it ground the reader in the setting? 2/2. Yes. Firmly. Does it introduce an intriguing character? 1/2. Not immediately, but it does with the introduction of a cat reading a map on page 4.
The most important question is does it want the reader wanting more? ABSOLUTELY. 2/2. And that’s why the books have done so well. By the end of the chapter, readers are left wanting more and more and more.
So how well does it rate on the first chapter scale? I gave it a 6/10.
The Book Thief
I’m using the first piece of the prologue for this since it’s what the readers would read first.
“First the colors.”
Does that really do anything? I’m not sure that the first line in itself has all that much effect, but when you’re looking at the page it’s not really the first thing you notice. The first thing you notice is the starred and bolded part a few sentences in.
***Here is a small fact*** You are going to die.
How’s that for impact? I read this a few years back, and I remember being completely captivated from the start. But what captivates readers about this book? Is it really the first line?
No, it’s the narrator. For those who haven’t read this book, the narrator is Death. And the way it is narrated is so powerful. And that starts in the very beginning. It grounds the reader in this POV so distanced from the conflict and characters, and it sets a tone for the Main Character’s story and all the background conflict.
How does it rate? Does it introduce conflict and action? 0/2. No. Backstory? 2/2. Not in the first section. Not until page 19 where the first chapter starts. Setting? 0/2. Not really. Intriguing character? 2/2. Absolutely. Death is the most intriguing narrator I’ve ever seen. But does it introduce the Main Character? In pieces. Leave the reader wanting more? 2/2. Definitely. 6/10.
The Lightning Thief
One of my favorite books and I couldn’t leave it out because the first chapter is amazing.
“Look, I didn’t want to be a half-blood.”
But even better than the first line is the title of the first chapter- I Accidentally Vaporize My Pre-Algebra Teacher. I mean, seriously. You immediately know what you’re getting into before you even start the book. It’s amazing.
Alright, rating the first chapter- Introducing conflict and action? 2/2. Yes. By the end of the first chapter, his teacher turns into a flying death creature, he uses a pen that turns into a sword to fight her off, and when that’s over, everyone pretends like it never happened. How’s that for action? No backstory? 1/2. Other than some really short, funny stories to set the scene, it’s pretty much clean because the narrator has no idea what’s going on. Setting? 2/2. Yeah, it’s set up really well. Introduce an intriguing character? 2/2. A teacher turning into a flying death creature. Does that really need to be answered? Leave the reader wanting more? 2/2. Obviously. 9/10.
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
Had to pick a classic to illustrate my point.
“Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy.”
Initial impressions is “meh”, but with the conclusion of the second sentence, we know the setting immediately and some of the conflict is included (the war). We get to know the main characters pretty quickly and a tiny hint of backstory (about the professor and the war) is introduced. What’s interesting about this book is that it’s written differently than the other’s I’ve used so far because the book was written many years earlier than the rest and writing/publishing were different in 1950 than it is today.
How does it rate? Conflict and Action? 2/2. I would say yes. Lucy stumbles into a different realm through a wardrobe? That’s definitely conflict, though not exactly action. Backstory? 2/2. Not much. Setting? 2/2. Firmly established at the very beginning. Intriguing character? 2/2. Between the quirky professor and the fawn at the end, definitely. Leave the reader wanting more? 2/2. Without a doubt. 10/10.
The Goose Girl
I couldn’t do this without including my favorite series.
“She was born Anidori-Kiladra Talianna Isilee, Crown Princess of Kildenree, and she did not open her eyes for three days.”
Pretty intriguing. The rest of the chapter is intriguing too. It starts with the queen’s mysterious sister who teaches Ani to talk to birds and teaches her about how everything has a language and is born with a word on its tongue. By the end, Ani runs away and gets stuck out in the cold and is sick for weeks.
Rating- Conflict and Action? 1/2. It’s got some action and conflict with her mother, but nothing huge for the main part of the story. Backstory? 0/2. It’s got a lot of backstory, and while it’s all important, it’s got A LOT of backstory. Setting? 2/2. Established very well up front. The description is beautiful and not distracting from the rest of the narrative. Intriguing character? 2/2. Her aunt talks to birds. Enough said. Leave the reader wanting more? 2/2. Of course we want more. 7/10.
Anyway, the whole point of this was to show how different ever first chapter is. Some has more backstory than others. Some explain things differently than others, and hold attention in different ways. Every first chapter is different just like every story is different. And how often does the first line of the chapter really have all that much impact on the story overall?
Harry Potter– Not much. It’s bland.
The Book Thief– Not much. It’s not bland, but the first sentence itself has no impact without the rest of the prologue.
The Lightning Thief– A lot of importance and a lot of impact.
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe– A lot. It introduces the main characters and the setting almost immediately. It jumps right into the story. But it’s very basic.
The Goose Girl– Somewhat important as it prompts the return of the queen’s sister who opens Ani’s eyes and gets the story rolling, but it’s still very basic.
What is the purpose of a first line? To hook the reader. It’s a promise to the reader for an amazing story. They are vivid, surprising, funny, clear, and it is the first chance you have to introduce your story to the reader. So make sure that it conveys what you want it to.
No first sentence is going to be “perfect”. No first chapter is going to be exactly right. There is no real way of doing it. All of these examples have various popularity, and they all did things differently. I mean, The Book Thief had a prologue, and that’s one of the biggest no-no’s right now and it’s hugely popular. Along that same line, C.S. Lewis wrote an entire book as a prologue for the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. But even the most well-known books on this list had some low scores.
There is no “right way” to do anything in writing. It doesn’t matter how well your first chapter scores on my little guidelines as long as it fits with the rest of your book and you’re happy with it.