This is not a Do or Don’t Do blog post. You’ll find plenty of those online, or you can go here or here. I will tell you, however, that your first chapter is the most important chapter in your novel — followed by the first fifty pages. This is what’s going to grab a literary agent or editor’s attention, and you have to be as concise and as thorough as possible. Thoroughly concise. You must be thoroughly concise. Can’t say it enough.
I recently rewrote my opening chapter. It had backstory information that — after numerous revisions — was no longer necessary. This bothered me, and I kept going back to it in my head. It wasn’t until my agent pointed out the same thing that it finally clicked for me.
If it’s not necessary, then get rid of it. Focus on introducing the character and the main hook.
So that’s what I did. I focused on three things:
- I introduced the main character.
- I showed her personality (smart, overactive imagination, avoids confrontations, darkly possessive).
- I added subtle foreshadows
All else will flow as you write the novel. Don’t try to explain everything in the first chapter. Keep the reader wanting more.
Here’s a freestyle first chapter. It’s a wrote-just-now draft, so it isn’t perfect, but it should give you a rough “visual” of what an opening chapter should look like. This is a YA gothic thriller — Gillian Flynn for the younger set. Sharp Objects meets The Thirteenth Tale. I love novels about books. I envision this spur-of-the-moment sample as such.
☕️ ☕️ ☕️ ☕️
It all began with a stolen book.
The Indie Bookworm was empty, nothing new there. I should be at home, looking after my little sister while juggling with my math and English homework almost simultaneously. Nothing new there either. I was Elizabeth Guzmán: emancipated sister-slash-mother extraordinaire. Wonder Woman had nothing on me.
But then Maggie, my boss, broke the news: we were broken into. Someone stole from us.
I surveyed the bookshop. It was large and imposing, with nineteenth century Gothic architecture and the old furniture to match. The shelves were neat, the DVD and Blu-ray drawers had not been forced open, the gift card stacks were full, and the café area was clean. There was money in the cash drawers. Who would want to steal from here? This shop was as appealing as a dark cemetery in the middle of winter.
“Which book was stolen?” I said, wrapping a scarf around my neck. “Let me guess, the SciFi section. A Neil Gaiman fanboy.”
“No.” Maggie sighed. “The Exclusives.”
My body froze. Shit.
The Exclusives were books so rare, and so valuable, that we kept them in a separate part of the shop, an area where only a few select customers—known as “The Exclusives”—had ever wandered into.
Double shit. Now wasn’t a good time. I needed to be with Lilibeth. My fourteen-year-old sister needed me, now more than ever.
“How many of them were stolen?” I asked, my voice higher than normal.
“Just one. Alone by Darell J. Storr.”
My shoulders relaxed. “Oh. Then it’s no big deal. I mean, Darrell J. Storr is no—”
“No big deal?” she shot out. “That was a first edition! It’s worth tens of thousands!”
“But nothing. Storr is the biggest author alive!”
I rolled my eyes. People said that about Darrell J. Storr, but I didn’t believe it. The man was what—forty, forty-five years old? He’d only written one book, and he wrote it five years ago. A collection of spooky short stories. Total mind candy. Dude was no Hemingway.
“He’s better than Hemingway, Liz,” Maggie said, as if reading my thoughts. “You would know that if you’d read his book. Trust me, you will never see the world quite the same way again. He brought short stories back.”
“If you say so.”
“He’s truly something special.”
“They say that about every hack and slash these days.”
“He’s not a hack,” she insisted. “He’s freaking brilliant. And gorgeous. Have you seen his back-jacket photo? Eyes as blue as the sea.”
“Ever thought of expanding your reading? Because you’re fluent in cliché.”
“I have blue eyes too. Almost every other person has them.”
“Yours aren’t as beautiful as his.”
A strand of frizzy brown hair spilled across my forehead. I combed it back with my fingers. I didn’t want to talk about guys—old or otherwise. At least not with Maggie. Things were still awkward between us after… after the thing.
She glanced at the locked door at the Exclusives room. “We’ll have to contact Loss Prevention and review the security tapes,” she said wearily. “Then we’ll have to contact each and every member for questioning. It’s not going to be pretty.”
My throat went dry. “Mags, it’s closing time, and Lilibeth is home alone. You know I can’t stay.”
She sighed. “Fine. We’ll do it tomorrow.”
Relieved, I closed the register, placing the key and green bags full of money (more like pocket change) inside the vault next to Maggie’s office. Then I grabbed my coat and bag and closed the office door. Buttoning my jacket with one hand, I pulled out my phone and typed “Darrell J. Storr” in the search box. I toyed with the idea of downloading his book, just to see what all the fuss was about, but I’d rather spend my quiet evenings reading books I’d known and loved since I was little. I still remembered my mother, slurring the words to me…
So I’d probably just settle down with Jane Austen or Charlotte Bronte again. Austen, Dickens, Bronte, du Maurier—they were reliable, familiar. Safe.
No surprises, no disasters.
I locked my phone and slipped it in my pocket. No Darrell J. Storr tonight.
“I have a copy of his book if you ever decide to read it,” Maggie said, reading my mind again. “Whatever you do, don’t download it. That’s what’s going to put me out of business, you know that, right?”
“You’ll be going out of business soon anyway.”
Maggie scrunched up her already wrinkled face. “Gee, thanks.”
“It’s true,” I said. “You’ll have to carry your library around with you, just like everyone else.”
“My library is fine where it is. Yours too. I’ll smash up your phone if I catch you downloading books from it.”
“I’ll keep that in mind, thank you.”
She stuck out her tongue before leaving the store. Chuckling to myself, I grabbed my bag and headed out the door, right behind her.
Maggie came back in.
“Liz?” she asked, her large frame pressed against the door. “Someone’s here to see you.”
The room spun. “Who?”
“The police.” She swallowed, glanced out the door. “It’s Lilibeth. She—”
My vision blurred, my knees quivered. I knew exactly what she would say next.
“She killed herself.”
Café Girl Out. 😘