How to Make Your First Chapter Pop

By Rachel Beck

You probably know that many literary agents and editors don’t always make it through the first page of a submission, let alone the first chapter. Due to the volume of their submissions inboxes, there just isn’t time to forgive any red flags or anything off-putting about the writing from the very first sentence—your book’s opening must be as close to flawless as you can possibly get it. I can’t stress that enough. If you do make it past the first sentence, first paragraph, first page by an industry professional’s very critical eye, the end of the first chapter is another logical place for them to stop reading if they’re not wholly immersed, engaged and loving your writing. 

So how to avoid that? How to make sure your opening chapter is compelling, delivers a sense of urgency, makes it impossible for a reader to walk away from? Here are some quick and dirty tips for creating the strongest first chapter possible:

  • Make the first sentence attention-grabbing, unusual and interesting. It should invite follow-up. It can be out of the box, startling, beg an explanation, make you curious or fill you with a need to know more. A few of my favorite opening lines (from books I worked on when I was an editor of romance and romantic suspense):
    • “In her wildest dreams, Zoey Hathaway never thought she’d wind up an heiress.” (Sleigh Bell Sweethearts by Teri Wilson)
    • “Sally Dawson sat in her car and waited for disaster.” (The Burden of Desire by Natalie Charles)
    • “You’ll never catch a husband if you keep messing with that plane.” (Hearts in Flight by Patty Smith Hall)
  • The first chapter should set up the story and provide clues to the overarching plot, conflicts, goals, obstacles and themes of the novel. You should give your reader a strong sense of your character and story so they simply must know more. Three big things to keep in mind are the goal, motivation and conflict, all of which should be established for your main character, in some sense, in the first chapter. What do they want, why do they want it, and what’s preventing them from getting it easily?
  • Leave out long chunks of back story in the first chapter. It will bog down the pace from the start, and readers won’t care about your character’s past the second they meet them. Start with more interesting, lively action, putting significant things at stake, and make us care about the character before diverting back to necessary, relevant info from the past.
  • Hint at the major questions that will drive the novel, or twists. Tease the reader, without being so sly that it’s infuriating to read. Imply that all is not as it seems. Answer some questions, and leave others for readers to keep flipping pages to get to. Create an allure around the characters’ world, and most importantly, the sense that the reader must stay in it!

If you follow these tips, your first chapter will pop. It will pique the interest of agents and editors, keeping them invested in the characters and the outcome beyond the first chapter, all the way through!

Rachel Beck is an agent with Holloway Literary. Follow her on Twitter @Rachel_C_Beck.