News room: 12 essential ingredients of a winning first chapter

12 essential ingredients of a winning first chapter by Sarah Juckes

Whether you are hoping to snap up an agent in your first few pages, or entice a reader in the first few lines – the opening chapter to your book is absolutely vital. So what makes a great opening chapter of a novel? In this edition of Expert Tips, we hear from author and Writing Coach, Jacqui Lofthouse, to find out more.

When you pick up a novel, what are you hoping the first page will offer you? Are there particular elements that entice you, make you want to remain with that novel and turn the page?

Whether you’re looking to traditionally publish and attract the attention of an agent or publisher, or simply to entice your audience to read on, it’s worth carefully considering how you will engage the reader from the moment they pick up your book.

Essential Elements:

1. An opening line or paragraph that grabs our attention and intrigues the reader.

2. A fascinating central character who reveals their individuality through their words, actions or inner thoughts. How will you convey your own fascination with this character to the reader?

3. Focus on consistency of style and narrative voice. Make sure that every word is there for a purpose.

4. Begin at an interesting point in the narrative. We need to have a sense that ‘something is about to happen’ or ‘something needs to be resolved’. It must not be static.

5. Conflict is key – it might be inner or outer conflict, overt or hidden, but it must be there in some form.

6. Use close, careful observation – notice what is unique about people/places/things. Are you using more senses than just the visual?

7. Your scene must have a sense of direction. In Joseph Heller’s words, ‘always make a character want something, even if it’s only a glass of water.’

8. It’s vital to think carefully about how your chapter will end. Will it be a cliff hanger? Or a suggestion that something is yet to be resolved, that intrigue lies ahead? Perhaps your final sentence will hint at what comes next…

Also consider the following ideas:

9. The suggestion of a mystery/danger/scandal ahead.

10. A leisured telling – this links to confidence and control. Contrary to the idea that pace is key, you might want to establish a narrator who is happy to reveal a story slowly, holding some elements of their story back.

11. An enigma regarding the central character: a sense that not all has been revealed, or very little has been revealed about this person.

12. A conjured mood – you might use setting or language to achieve this.

Why not take a look at the first chapters of books that you love and ask yourself how many of these elements are in place? You’ll learn a tremendous amount from the enquiry. Then, when you return to your own work, ask yourself what is working and what might be added to make your book impossible to resist.

Jacqui Lofthouse is founder of The Writing Coach, the longest established UK coaching organisation for writers. Her novels have been published by Penguin and Bloomsbury and have sold 100,000 copies. She has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia and mentors writers internationally. You can find out more about Jacqui and get her free guide to productivity and confidence for writers here:

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Written by
Sarah Juckes
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Expert tips and Writing