First Chapters are like First Impressions

The first chapter isn’t necessarily more difficult in a technical sense of writing, but it is one of the most scrutinized pieces of a story.

First chapters are important, which might seem kind of obvious since they’re where a story starts off. But their importance is not just structural. First chapters are where we introduce ourselves as writers to readers, and they’re where we can make the first overture to turn a reader into a fan.

There tends to be a lot of pressure associated with the first, opening chapter of a story, and that’s because first chapters are more than just establishing the plot, characters, and setting of a story.

Perhaps the best analogy I can make is to say that in a lot of ways first chapters are like first impressions – there’s a lot of obvious things you should and shouldn’t do when introducing yourself to someone for the first time, but there’s also the question of what you want the person to see versus what they might happen to see when you make your introductions.

In my experience, first impressions are kind of this trick question, where you want to both be authentic and still manage to put your best foot forward. It can be a difficult balance to strike, because who can both be genuine and yet ideal.

There’s also the challenge of people being somewhat unpredictable. We can try to showcase our intelligence, only to find out that the person we’re impressing finds that intimidating. Or maybe we roll out our sarcastic humor, only to discover that it goes over the other person’s head and ends up more awkward than humorous.

The primary goal of a first impression – at least when it’s a deliberate type of introduction – is to seize the moment with a goal in mind. If you’re meeting a prospective employer, you want to seem intelligent, capable, and competent. If it’s a blind date, or even just a first date, you want to seem interesting, and unique, while also being desirable. For first chapters, the goal is to entice a reader to keep reading – if your story is their cup of tea.

In writing, after a reader has a chance to check out my first chapter, I want them to set a book back on the shelf only after they’ve made an informed decision. Maybe they didn’t like the protagonist or the narrative voice. Maybe it’s not the kind of setting or world they like reading, which they know because I established it well in the first chapter. Not everyone is going to like your stories, and that’s okay. We just don’t want them to give up because they got the wrong impression.

About the only good thing – considering that first chapters being a reader’s first impression of us as writers – is that authors don’t have to be in the room with the reader as they form their first impressions. (Except for later in this workshop, where we all read our work out loud… See that was an attempt at humor, and I don’t actually want any of you to panic. I promise you don’t have to read out loud…unless that’s a thing you actually want to do.)

There’s also a question of making certain you don’t make false promises in your first chapter – false promises are almost worse than driving readers away before the end of the first chapter. This happens when you write the crap out of chapter one and hook a reader who keeps reading because they are sold on the premise of the story. But then they get to the end, and suddenly it’s not what they expected. In the romance genre, this is one of the reasons why labels have grown so widely used – because they make certain a reader knows what they’re getting into. Is it a happily ever after, or a happy for now type ending? What’s the heat level, meaning how explicit and frequent are the sex scenes? Even with those labels, it’s the first chapter where you establish to the reader what they’re in for.

Will the story be funny? Emotional? Keep a reader on the edge of their seat? And beyond just answering those questions specifically and deliberately, somehow things need to stay at a level of mystery and intrigue. First chapters need to give readers a hint of what’s to come without bashing them over the head with it.

For writers both new and experienced, first chapters are often the most rewritten of any story. This is for a couple of reasons. The first being that however the story started coming out when we began writing, we know more now than when we did when we wrote the beginning the first time. There’s also the fact that when it comes time to start revising, first chapters are what get the most attention – it’s right at the front and the beginning is where you start, so unless you make some interesting decisions about chapter order the first chapter will naturally get read the most by you or a volunteer reader, or agent or editor. We also feel pressure to give it the most attention because of all the things I just spoke about – knowing that first chapters can be a significant part of what gets a reader to buy a book versus setting it back down.

All of which means first chapters need to be the best of what you can offer, to correctly inform a reader’s decision.

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