I feel like I have everything except the first chapter; once the story is underway I feel like I know where to go, but I'd like some guidance in getting it all started when the reader knows nothing at all.

What does the reader need to know to get into it (without telling them everything), and do professionals usually start with the character, or the setting, or background, or what exactly? Is it just personal choice, or is there some good formula for attacking it?

  • I want to know readers and writers opinions why would you put it on hold
    – Angel
    Commented Jun 13, 2018 at 12:03
  • 1
    Almost certainly because, as you put it in the title, "what are your opinions?". It seems to me that a question doesn't get much more opinion-based than that. We want questions that can be reasonably objectively answered; failing that (as often happens), we want questions that can be answered based on facts, references, or specific expertise.
    – user
    Commented Jun 13, 2018 at 12:13
  • If this answer still doesn't have what you're looking for, consider rewording so that answers don't have to be based entirely on opinion: writing.stackexchange.com/questions/26254/… Commented Jun 13, 2018 at 20:58
  • 2
    So you can only ask questions that can be answered with facts? Wow.
    – Angel
    Commented Jun 14, 2018 at 8:11
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    Not just facts; but not so squishy that anything can be considered a valid answer. Opinion polls are like that, but instead of just opinion we want answers with reasoning behind them so people can learn the mechanics of authorship. I actually think your question IS about such mechanics, and you just accidentally stepped on a land-mine by using the word "opinion". That is why I edited it to sound more like what I guessed you intended to learn here.
    – Amadeus
    Commented Jun 14, 2018 at 10:45

5 Answers 5


In classic story theory, a story begins in the normal world, the world from which the hero will be forced to depart and to which they will attempt to return, often transformed. This does not mean a physical journey, necessarily. A coming of age tale requires the hero to leave the normal world of childhood and enter a world of confusion that they are not equipped to handle. They return to the normal world as a transformed into an adult.

The normal world is essential. Until the normal world is established, we cannot tell what the stakes are for the hero, who they are, what they are willing to do, or what they stand to lose or gain.

But this presents a difficulty, because there essential action of the story takes place outside of the normal world. It consists of the expulsions or departure from the real world, the challenges faced in the outside world, and the sacrifices required to return to or to save the normal world. Therefore you have to create and sustain interest in the normal world before any of the story action begins. This is why openings are so very difficult.

The saving grace is that the reader knows (intuitively, if not explicitly) that all stories begin in the real world. They want to know what the real world is like and who the hero is before the adventure begins, because without that the story will not be engaging. In the end, there are not very many story shapes. It is the people who animate the story shape in each individual story that make it engaging.

The key things to cover in the first chapter, therefore, are, what is the normal world for the hero, who are they, and what do they love. Some foreshadowing of trouble may certainly be there, but it must be in the context of the normal world. It must be a shadow, at most, or the normal world will not be normal at all.

But the establishment of the normal world is not about the recitation of facts. It is is about the animation, the giving of life, to the character and the world. This is normally done through incident (though not always) but it is an incident or normal life in the normal world. (Bilbo throws a party, Mrs Bennet receives news of a bachelor moving into the neighbourhood.) Normal life is full of incidents and its these incidents that constitute its character, what makes it normal. The great thing about them is not that they are high drama, but that they are vivid and recognizable as the things of ordinary life happening to ordinary people.

Yes, something is soon going to go wrong and summon the hero out of the ordinary world, but the reader knows that already, because that is what a story is. You won't hook them by moving to it too fast, because the hook has no barb, not power to catch and hold, until the normal world is established.

Paint the normal world. Make it vivid. Give it life.


I think the best first chapters give you the attitude of the story. Meaning, after reading the first chapter, you already understand what kind of narrator (or story style) you are dealing with. For example, the first chapter of "Anna Karenina" and the opening scene of "Inglorious Bastards" (the movie).

Stories that do not have that generally focus on exposition or start from a part of the story which is highly attractive and then the next chapters show how everything has got to this situation. Given, the first chapter of "Anna Karenina" is expository. Although, I think the narrator defines a clear and unique tone that carries throughout the story. A similar thing happens in the movie "Everything is Illuminated" but does not have the same effect. The narrator has a unique tone at the first scenes but the same attitude is not kept throughout the movie.

  • I feel like with Inglourious Basterds the tone changes with each set of characters like when your with the Nazis it’s intense but when you’re with the basterds it’s cool but when your with Shosanna it’s kinda nervous or anxious but in my book I’d say it’s supposed to be like 40% funny and 60% scary kinda like IT.
    – Angel
    Commented Jun 13, 2018 at 6:16
  • 1
    Yeah, I agree with you. On second thought, I'd say that an introduction with a unique tone is definitely what attracts me to a story.
    – Snifkes
    Commented Jun 13, 2018 at 17:38

I would point you towards How to open a novel? Extending the answers to that question from "first page" to "first chapter", I'd say the first chapter should give us an idea of what the story is going to feel like: what the setting is, what kind of problems the characters can expect to face, whether the tone is going to be serious or humorous.

It is very common to introduce at least one main character in the 1st chapter. (There are notable exceptions to this rule, particularly in 18th and 19th century writing.) It is not a bad idea to foreshadow the main problem. (For example, in the 1st chapter of the Lord of the Rings, we do not yet know yet what the Ring is, and what the quest is going to be, but the Ring appears, and there's wrongness going on about it.)

Finally, the first chapter should draw you in. It should open, not close. It should leave something unresolved - there should be a promise of something coming up. In the aforementioned LotR example, Frodo gets the Ring; what next? What's the wrongness with the Ring? How is it going to affect Frodo, and how is he going to deal with it? Another example: by the end of the first chapter of The Three Musketeers, d'Artagnan has just arrived in Paris, having already encountered some trouble. Again, this is an opening - Paris is set up as where the adventure begins, so the reader is left wondering "what next?"


A first chapter is the door by which the reader enters the book. As I wrote here, the first chapter often foreshadows the end, at least in mood and style. It also usually introduces the main characters, the setting --and sometimes the inciting incident of the plot.

If the rest of your book is moving along briskly, it's worth considering just starting from what you have, and not trying to write an introductory chapter at all. I've read plenty of books that could have stood to have been trimmed a bit at the beginning. With all that said, what exists in your reader's mind is only what you give them on the page. They need to have enough of a description to visualize the character and the settings, enough context to know what is important and why, and so forth.

It quickly gets clunky, however, when the writer has to spend a lot of time explaining things to the reader that the characters already know, and modern readers have little patience for that kind of exposition. You'll get a little more allowance for exposition at the beginning, but not a whole lot of it. For that reason, one good way to start your book is by finding a plausible reason for your POV character to observe or comment on some of the main things that will become important to the reader.


There is no exact definition of "chapter", this is very much up to the author to decide. For myself, I consider it the first chunk of continuous time the reader will see, in the life of the main character (MC). Or fairly continuous; I will still leave out time-consuming bits that slow down the story; like sleep, travel, washing up, getting dressed, cooking or eating or using the restroom. Not out of any modesty, they just aren't actions important to the story.

The first chapter can be difficult because it has several jobs. But the MAIN job, in my own writing, is to introduce the main character and get the reader interested in her life.

Other authors begin with a setting, or begin with characters tangential to the main character: JK Rowling opens her first Harry Potter book, not talking about Harry Potter, but his aunt and uncle that will raise him, Mr. and Mrs. Dursley: Proud to be perfectly normal. But on page one she introduces their secret, and fear they will be associated with the Potters, and found out to be not normal at all.

In the next few pages we start seeing elements that will all turn out to be magic (owls, a cat reading a map), but Harry is still not mentioned until page 5. Nevertheless, by the end of the first chapter (page 21), we see plenty of magic, and have some clue about the central conflict for Harry, discovering who he is. (Yes, Voldemort killed Harry's parents, couldn't kill the infant Harry. But to me the central conflict is that Harry was left on the Dursley doorstep to be raised by them, doesn't know his magic nature, and will "come of age" in the magical sense at 11 and discover a new self and a new world of wonders in which he belongs).

The next chapter starts ten years later: To me, that passage of time is the hallmark of a chapter break; the first chapter covers a mostly continuous single day, then there is a gap where whatever happens is inconsequential and left to the reader's imagination, or just sketched in writing (for example, "Her cab arrived and she left for the airport, and London." End of chapter. Next chapter, she's been in London for days.

In your first chapter, I feel you must introduce your world and your hero and something about their problem. If there is magic (or technology that might as well be magic) you need to make that firmly known. All of this intertwined in some way, so it feels like a story: a character with a problem moving through a setting.

This is made more difficult by the fact that readers don't know anything yet about your character or setting or anything else.

To address that writing problem, you need a device; an excuse to start telling somebody this story about a stranger in a (presumably) new and fictional setting (whether or not your story is a realistic modern day setting).

However, readers know this, and will give you several pages of leeway to get your story engine going, the first page at least if no glaring writing errors are present.

The device you need is conflict; in a very broad sense: To me, 'conflict' is anything that my hero has to deal with and cannot ignore, from pouring soured milk on her cereal, to full lethal battle with the bad guys.

However, for the first chapter, I think it is a mistake to jump into major conflict because the reader doesn't know anybody and therefore has no sympathy for anybody, so major conflicts will fall flat. They won't be exciting, because the reader doesn't know who to root for yet, there is no context or lens for them to see this scene through.

For that reason, I typically start my hero off with a minor conflict, I call it a "throwaway", meaning a problem that may not really influence the plot. It can have influence, or be foreshadowing, or cause the hero to do something out of the ordinary: Like waking up with the power out, finding yourself late for work, and taking a different train in to the city, and meeting somebody on it that IS important to the plot.

But it doesn't have to; it is just a device, a problem you can describe your hero dealing with, that shows us something about her, something about her world and situation, and creates sympathy in the reader for her. They don't know everything about her yet, or about her world, but you hit some big points so the reader is grounded in your story.

By the end of the first chapter, the time break, you should have reader interest in seeing either how something turns out, or at least following this character into Chapter Two to see what happens to her next. For me, all my heroes are rare in some way (like Harry Potter is), and that promises the reader that by following her, they will see new things.

You have heard of page-turners before: The essence of entertainment in reading is anticipation and wanting to see what happens next. The story is a chain reaction of teasing and fulfillments; each time we find out what happens next, this should create another anticipation of ... what happens next?

Until the finale, in which what happens next is no longer a big question; for a happy ending our hero is safe and going on with her new life.

IMO: What you need for the first chapter is a minor problem you can use to introduce your character, her world, and perhaps a larger problem for the reader to wonder about, so we can care about her and want to see what happens next.

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