Lately I’ve begun a lot of projects. Not necessarily because I actually want to write all of them right now, but because I’m experimenting with the beginnings that might work for each.
Beginnings are the most crucial part of a story. Imagine your dream book reader is in a bookstore, leafing through books to see if they’re worth buying. She opens up yours, reads a page or two, and then the store owner calls, “Closing time!” Does she sigh and put it back, or does she have to have it? Is she already invested in the characters? Does she want to know what happens next? You can’t predict how much time your reader will spend making that decision, so the hook has to be set right away.
That said, you don’t hook people by starting with explosions on the first page, without any context of who the characters are. We have to both care about the characters and be interested in what happens next. In addition to all that, the style and word choice should be the best you can possibly write. No other part of the book is as important–or as difficult.
For that reason, it probably shouldn’t be the first thing you write. It takes some time to get to know your characters and get the hang of your voice. So either I write a lot of test scenes first, or I wind up circling back and rewriting the beginning after I’ve finished the end. Don’t let the beginning’s importance paralyze you! Begin any old way, and go back once you have a perfect beginning in mind.
So, with all that, how do you begin? What should actually be happening in the first chapter?
Easier to answer what should not be happening. It should not be a character sitting around and thinking, or doing something mundane for several pages like getting ready in the morning or staring at himself in the mirror. But it’s not likely that you can get into your story’s main conflict on the first page, because you have to have some context first before the reader can even understand what the main conflict is. Most of all, you don’t want paragraphs of narration where you explain all the backstory. That can be worked in later.
Instead, what usually works for me is to start with a small conflict. An argument, perhaps. Or if your main character is some kind of hero, you can show them doing their more everyday sort of hero-work. Jim Butcher often begins with Harry Dresden fighting some kind of everyday baddie, like a ghost or demon, who isn’t the main villain of the story. It’s important that this mini-conflict mirrors the main one. If the story is about war, it could start with a small spat on the border that foreshadows the coming breakdown of diplomacy. Or if it’s about a family secret, you’d want to start with the relatives arguing. This achieves the important task of letting people know what kind of book this is going to be. You don’t want to give them the impression it’s a lighthearted comedy when on page 300 the Dark Lord takes over.
Another possibility is to start with the inciting incident, like the character’s first day at a new job or the day the aliens land. This is not the main action, but it’s what starts the main story going. The Warrior’s Apprentice, by Lois McMaster Bujold, starts with Miles washing out of his military exam. The main story is how he tries to smuggle cargo and winds up a mercenary admiral, but it takes Bujold awhile to get there or explain why Miles is the kind of person who can accomplish that. So she needs to hook us with something else, which is the huge failure that drives him to do all the other things. His mistake is so utterly characteristic of him that it reveals a great deal more about his character than pages of description of his traits and backstory.
Either way, your first chapter should center your protagonist (or one of your protagonists) so we can start getting to know them from page one.
This Twitter thread is all about beginnings. I loved reading through them and thinking about what kind of story each must be. Check them out for inspiration!