I'm struggling with my first chapter (fc). I have a plan but it doesn't contain any action, something that I know from experience should be in the fc to capture the reader's excitement.
I was going to start by introducing the key characters and their home, something that does sound incredibly boring but made a little more interesting due to the fact it's a dystopian setting.

The main character's backstory is very interesting but I was intending to reveal it a few chapters in, rather than introduce it in the fc (as a time skip).
Another alternative is to give a Prologue about how the apocalypse started (though I don't know if it should be a fc or Prologue were I to include it).

The main ideas I could potentially use are:

  • Description on how the virus was released and the effect of this on the population.
  • Description on how the Protagonist entered the village, bringing with her the disease.
  • Simply starting the story without any of the above information but finding some way to make it interesting. In this case I would describe the village and what life is like living in the post-apocalypse.

Any ideas on how else I could add action/make the fc interesting? What are 3 useful tips when writing it and what are 3 things that should be included in it?

2 Answers 2


I'll add my 2¢

Stories begin on a status quo.

Your story is set in a post-apocalypse – maybe a current-apocalypse – so your status quo at the start of the story is precarious.

I'll make a few assumptions:

  1. The pandemic has already started.
  2. The village has policies to keep the virus from spreading (which fail obviously).
  3. The origin of how/where the virus started is unimportant at this point in the story (if ever).

Why you don't want a Prolog

Prologs are 100% factual because they are foundational knowledge that comes directly from the only true authority: the Author.

Your genre/setting is about the breakdown of society, the loss of law and order, and the end of anything reliable. The 'facts' that you clarify in your prolog work against your genre and setting.

Early in the COVID pandemic, the origin of the virus was learned to be a random (but normal) mutation of an animal-virus spread through a food market. There is no literary payoff from this piece of trivia. IF there was any moral lesson to be learned it was something about the Earth's shrinking wildlife habitats and the inevitable march towards globalization – bla bla....

There's nothing special about this origin story, it is the same origin of almost every viral disease, hence swine flu, chicken pox..., HIV originated in apes. Viruses mutate every day. The fact that people politicized it, and conspiracy-alized it, is far more interesting (story-wise) than the truth.

A factual prolog would render all that drama moot. It's like telling the reader whodunnit and then asking them to enjoy the detective solving the mystery when they already know the red herrings.

House of cards

The precarious status quo of your village is going to fall apart like a house of cards.

People do disastrously stupid things when they panic. They reach for quack cures and superstition, they reject sane authority and experience, they single-out the usual suspects to scapegoat, and they horde toilet paper.

You will have characters that do ALL these things, but as the author you don't want to tip your hand which characters are right/wrong because everyone is going to panic and change their routine. In a dystopia everyone does the wrong thing – people are unfairly punished for doing the right thing – and there are no clear answers because everything is morally grey and about survival.

I agree with Phil S' suggestion to sketch-in the 1st chapter, and re-write it once you know your major plot points.

Stranger in a strange land

Start with your outsider protagonist entering the village and encountering world building: arbitrary rules that subjugate the already marginalized, quack cures and street preachers, and $1000 rolls of toilet paper.

Go back and add some of those 'plot hooks': those shaky pillars on which the village is currently standing which will spectacularly collapse later: unjust authoritarianism, a faulty belief about the virus, pressure from the local industries to trade-as-usual, and unhelpful counter-narratives from the fringes.

All these things will help the village appear foreign and hostile. Readers should feel apprehension about the village, and familiarity with the protagonist who is our witness. Ironic because she is bringing the danger to them.

If the rules feel arbitrary and draconian, readers will empathize with her lying to get in. We don't need to know her backstory yet, or why she's lying. We especially should not know she's bringing disaster. Focus on her immediate antagonists (unsympathetic guards? an invasive medical check? security theater?), and the conflict of how she's going to guile her way inside.

Leave room for disaster

It may be necessary to imply her need to be inside the village (or her need to not be outside the village) to add a ticking clock to her fc conflict. But naturally, this is not what she says at the gate so there's no need to frontload her bigger conflict that isn't in evidence yet.

As hostile as this strange land appears now, everything will get worse over the course of the story, so keep the opening conflict immediate and personal to her. Show her as sympathetic underdog, so the reader is on board with her immediate goal.

Introduce other important (to her) characters and local conflicts that will complicate her story –– but just introductions. She does not know their significance so she will make selfish decisions which she may regret later. Example: She guiles her way past a guard with a sob story, someone she will need later who won't trust her because of this earlier lie.

Since she is essentially a different character in the first conflict than the one we'll get to know, readers will give her the benefit of assuming her underdog status justifies her behavior. We should celebrate her earned 'win' and accept her as the story's hero.

Discovering later that she has serious moral flaws, and is culpable for the deaths she brings, aligns with the genre. Readers experience a rug pull, or a slow-burn negative arc, as other characters experience their reliable world falling apart and friends betraying them.


First chapters are both tricky and important...but there's good news too. You don't need to nail down your 1st chapter until late in the writing / editing process.

Any of your proposed starting points could work (although generally avoid prologues unless you can really make them sing) - and if they don't, well you can change to another one later on. So just start writing wherever takes your fancy.

'Finding the story', and 'Polishing the story' are very different processes. If it helps you to start writing as early in your story as possible, then writing through until the end, that effort isn't wasted, even if you end up cutting parts of it.

I would just add on the subject of first chapters, the key isn't necessarily action (which is meaningless unless the reader cares about the character/stakes) - it's HOOKS. Capturing the reader's attention, getting them to ask questions and seek answers. An intriguing mystery or an unresolved question can be better than blazing gunfire. You're making promises to the reader at this point about what the book will offer them if they keep going.

A good example of this is John Le Carre - read the first page of any his books and you'll find it littered with hooks, incidental details and questions that draw the reader in.

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