Writing Week: How to Hook Readers with the First Chapter

All this week, here at the League we're talking about writing--each of us are tackling a different subject, so be sure to check back every day to learn something new!

Today, I'm going to talk about writing first chapters and hooking your readers from page one. Recently, Penguin released the first chapter of my book (if you'd like, you can download it here).

Several people have asked me how I came up with that chapter, so I thought I'd go through that here.

But the first thing you should know is: that was not my original first chapter. Originally, that was Chapter 4. The original first chapter is now chapter 4 (ironic), and the original second and third chapters were deleted.

When I had my work read by beta readers, they all felt the first chapters were okay, but not great. They were, to put it simply, "good enough." But chapter 4, on the other hand, was a chapter that everyone universally liked--it made them sit up, and they really liked that one.

I resisted--all the way until the final draft--to rewrite my beginning and move Chapter 4 to Chapter 1. I thought readers would need that first three chapters of back story, that if I dropped them into the story too soon, they wouldn't understand what was going on. Besides, there was nothing wrong with the original three first chapters. They were good enough. But I tried it anyway, and the response was much more positive.

And I learned three things:

  • Good enough is never good enough.
  • Trust your beta readers.
    •  If they all think something doesn't work, you should seriously consider changing it.
  • Trust your readers. 
    • Usually, they don't need three chapters of backstory--they're smart enough to figure it out on their own.

So--I moved Chapter 4 to Chapter 1, and it was a much much stronger that way. But why?

First, I'd been reading lots of blogs and forums on the importance of first chapters and first lines. A first line that many people felt was very strong was the one in Charlotte's Web:
"Where's Papa going with that axe?" said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.
 This line grabs attention--it starts with dialog, so there's immediacy, and what's more important is that the question Fern asks becomes the question we, the readers, ask. Where is Papa going with that axe, anyway?

So, I decided to try it out on my work, and came up with:
Daddy said, "Let Mom go first."
My goal was to make the reader ask questions--where is Mom going? Why does Daddy want her to go first? Which lead me to my next lesson in writing first chapters:

  •  If your reader asks questions, they can become emotionally invested in the story.
But there's a corollary to this lesson: don't let the questions go on too long. In Charlotte's Web, the answer to the question comes quickly--and I answered my own question in the very next paragraph of my first chapter. If you leave your reader with unanswered questions, he'll just become frustrated.

And also: you don't need to open with dialog (or with a question) to make your reader question what's going on. A key description, or an interesting emotion, or an unusual action is enough to make a reader question what's going on. 

So, I had my initial hook. But a hook does not a chapter make.

From the hook, I needed to maintain the reader's interest. In the first chapter, Amy watches first her mother, then her father, get frozen alive to prepare for a centuries long journey into space. One thing I did--without realizing it at the time (my crit partner Rebecca pointed it out to me later) was repetition. Amy sees the freezing happen to her parents twice before she actually goes through it herself. So there's dread and anticipation from watching it happen.

But the thing I consciously did--and this is a bit gross to describe, but how I thought of it at the time and since--was dig my fingers in their wounds. 

I could have written that chapter in a paragraph: The all get frozen. Done. 

Instead, I described every hurt and pain as graphically as I could. They get cut, I dig my fingers in their wounds, making it worse and worse. And if it wasn't bad enough? I poured salt on top of the wounds, too.

The main idea of my first chapter is pain--but any intense emotion or feeling would do. If it was a kissing scene, I could have described the kiss in great depth, the emotion of love and longing. If it was a sad scene, I could do more than have a tear fall down the main character's cheek. The point is:
  • Dig as deep as you can go into some sort of emotional or physical intensity.
The reason? We all have feelings. In the first chapter, you're trying to make us care about your characters--do that by making us feel. I made my characters feel pain--who hasn't felt pain? But you can have them feel anything--really dig into the emotion, and you'll keep your readers hanging on.


Sherrie Petersen said...

Awesome post! Thank you for the mini tutorial. And btw, loved the "first" chapter :)

Anonymous said...

I love this post! Thank you so much for sharing this. It's awesome and... jumping to read your first chapter too :).

Amie McCracken said...

Great post. I'm off to read the first chapter!

Anonymous said...

Great post! At a conference in April, an agent told me to lose my first chapter and start the story with chapter two--with a slight alteration to the beginning of it. I was hesitant to delete the chapter I'd already rewritten several times to get it just right. But in the end, I did. And the story is so much better. Now the reader can feel my character's emotional battle right from the start, and as you said, getting the reader to care about your MC is so important.

Anonymous said...

By far one of the most informative posts on the subject I've read yet. I'm opening up my MS to start my own 'digging'. Thanks!

Marcia said...

Excellent post. Besides your main point, I think it also sheds light on how starting with dialogue can work. Starting with dialogue has become a thou-shalt-not, and I don't think the blanket taboo is warranted.

Unknown said...

Great post! And....that's the sound of me placing my first chapter under a microscope. :)

Anonymous said...

LOVE this. Great stuff here. First chapters are so important. I'll not pick up a book if I'm not drawn in by that first chapter. . . . Pressure, right? I know. .. . LOL

Angela Ackerman said...

Great post as always. This really helps to have it spelled out to focus on that one hurt, that one emotion that must come through and set the mood. Thanks so much!

Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

Katie Anderson said...

Great post Beth and great info! Thanks :)

Sandy said...

Thank you so much for this wonderful post, Beth! The first line of ACROSS THE UNIVERSE definitely captured my interest. :)

lotusgirl said...

What a great insight into the way you came to your first chapter. It has made me think a lot about how I can make my first chap better.

Colene Murphy said...

amazing! The first clarification to "hook the reader right away" no one wanted to explain HOW to in detail and this did it. I get it! Thanks!

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

"Good enough is never good enough" should be a writer's mantra. Your first chapter is one of the best I've ever read and that's because you didn't settle for good enough. Thanks as always for great advice. Can't wait to read this book.

Zoe C. Courtman said...

Great post - and, Beth, that first chapter was FANTASTIC. I'm STILL thinking about it, and I downloaded and read it WEEKS ago. Can't wait to order it. FANFREAKINTASTIC, lady!!

Charity Bradford said...

Ah, a perfect post for me this week. Last night I quizzed my husband for 30 minutes on whether or not I should rearrange my first 3 or 4 chapters.

What do you do when you can't really get great betas? My hubby waffled back and forth and was no help at all. I need to send my first 10 pages with one of my queries that is going out on Wednesday (my first 5 ever!). Anyway, 10 pages is my first 2 chapters. They start short and get longer as the story progresses. These first two chapters introduce 2 characters. There is action to get us going, but it is also set up stuff.

My question was whether to move chapter 2 back so that all 10 pages were about my MC. My hubby however thinks chapter 2 is more interesting. (It used to be chapter 1, but it's not about the MC, so the few readers I have said that was misleading.)

Man! This writing gig is complicated! LOL.

Shallee said...

Thanks for sharing, Beth! I loved your first chapter, and this is great advice!

Unknown said...

To answer Charity's question in more detail:

As to getting good beta readers: it took me a while to get there, honestly. My first group was a group of people I started talking with on a writing forum; we were all writing similar things and decided to start a little group. Eventually that group broke up--there were five of us, and only me and another one of the writers really took writing seriously (by which I mean, we were willing to really work, really try to improve, and keep writing despite everything). Soon after, I joined SCBWI, and there was a listserv post asking for a new online crit group member, and since my first group was crumbling, I joined it. I didn't mesh well with that group, and lasted less than a year--two people weren't really on the same level as me, people were writing things so entirely out of my style that we weren't helpful to each other, and one person was good and I meshed with her. So, to sum: so far, I've joined two groups, and found only two people I work well with from each group.

I found other partners through my blog--in the years of blogging, I've had several people contact me asking to work together, and three of them have stuck well--we had similar styles, similar likes, and similar levels.

So, now I have a cadre of readers I trust--I've worked with them before, I know I like their work, and I know they're good. And I know their styles--I know that two of them are good on big-picture things, two of them are good on pace, etc. So I stagger my submissions to my readers to get the most impact from their suggestions.

It *did* take time to find good people who I liked and trusted, and some of it was luck. But a lot of it was putting myself out there--joining a writer's forum where I found people who write similarly to me, joining SCBWI that led me to opportunities, and blogging in a community-style way that led to good networking ideas. I didn't do any of this consciously--I didn't start blogging thinking I'd make a network of people to use as readers--but by being there and throwing myself out there, I found opportunities to improve.

Misty Waters said...

Great post!! *scurries off to current revision on WiP, closes out world and thinks about new possiblities*

Casey McCormick said...

Fabulous post, Beth! I'm going to work on amping up the emotional intensity of my first chapter. : )

Perry Wilson said...

Great advice. I am surprised when I give critiques to friends, or to submission to PaperBoxBooks.com how many writers still don't start the story with something interesting - or worse first paragraph hooks and next 3 pages are back story.


Carolina M. Valdez Schneider said...

I LOVE LOVE LOVE this post. You have no idea, Beth. You just helped me solve a problem I've been struggling with for an old manuscript of mine. Holy crap. I feel...light.

Man, thank you.

Lynsey Newton said...

Thank you so much for these posts!! I can't wait to read Across the Universe,I'm literally lusting after it!

Margo Kelly said...

Great post - and GREAT first chapter! Thanks for sharing the info. :)

Sara B. Larson said...

I read your chapter a couple weeks ago, and thought it was AMAZING. I can't WAIT for the rest! This was such a great post, explaining how you got there. Thanks!

AimeeLSalter said...

You just completely solved my problem for how to kick of book II in my first series..... thank you!!!

Julie Musil said...

Wow, this is great, thank you!

Anonymous said...

A crit partner led me to this post, and it is hugely helpful. I also read your first chapter and that is a chapter full of whoa - you do an incredible job with it and demonstrate exactly what you describe here. It is as close to a perfect high-intensity first chapter as I can imagine.

I do have a question, however, about this immediate, high-stakes technique. It works impeccably for your work, but do you think there is sometimes value to a slower build, a more expository beginning? Certainly a "good enough" chapter should always be reworked, but beyond that, what are people's thoughts about a slow build?

Stina said...

I haven't read your first chapter yet because I was waiting for the book to be released. But since I'm now reworking my second chapter to be my first chapter (after receiving feedback I won from an agent), I'll definitely check it out today. :D

Katrina L. Lantz said...

Absolutely brilliant! Well said! I'm trying to follow this advice in my current WIP and it is much more gratifying to write emotionally charged scenes right off the bat than it is to write back story leading up to the emotion/action.

No wonder. It is gratifying to read it, too. Write what you like to read<--makes perfect sense to me. :)

Dorothy said...

I read your first chapter when it came out and it floored me. I love how you've shown us the logic behind the process of getting to that grand opening.

Also, I liked reading about your experience with groups and how you found your Beta readers.

Looking forward to reading the book.

A Little Bit of Truth said...

great idea but pretty retarded that you didnt even nnotice that you were creating tension, i dont think you should be giving advise if you cant even notice the obvious in your own writing.

A Little Bit of Truth said...

great idea but pretty retarded that you didnt even nnotice that you were creating tension, i dont think you should be giving advise if you cant even notice the obvious in your own writing.

Anonymous said...

Here-here! Por acid on your charicters after rubbing that salt in. Anyways I just discovered why chapter one is only 'interesting' (said most cridics I had look at it for help.) But, when I pulled the back story back out placed her in it, much better comments, saying it defiantly hooks. Yay. So try revising your back story into a chapter, forget prologues, go with what this blog and others say, jump into the action.