Any author of fiction or memoir has wondered how to write the best first chapter. [Writing nonfiction? This other article is for you!] Perhaps the most common answer is one we’ve all heard at one time or another: Start with action. Start fast. Begin with a bang. The rationale is that if your novel doesn’t grab the agent to which you’ve submitted it, or the reader sampling it on Amazon, they probably won’t buy it. In short, if you don’t write the best first chapter possible for your story, everything else you’ve written might not even matter.
But if my years as a book editor have taught me anything, it’s that not all stories are driven by action. What if you’ve written a quiet character drama? And what does it really mean to begin a manuscript with action? In the first part of our brand-new four-part series on nailing those opening pages, we’ll determine how action really fits with writing the best first chapter and how we might do it.
What Action Really Means
When we think of action, we often think of it in big-budget film terms. Maybe it’s an explosion, like the beginning of a James Bond film. Or maybe it’s a murder at the outset of a mystery. Some writers establish early action by starting with a scene from later in the narrative, then flashing back and showing how we arrived there—a device we call in medias res, or in the middle of things.
In medias res is an entirely valid way to launch a story. So are explosions and murders. Major plot beats like these suggest story from the very beginning, and readers are compelled by story.
But in that explanation lies the answer. We talk about the importance of starting with action when you want to write the best first chapter for your novel or memoir, but it’s not about the scale of action. It’s about the story of it.
Action, basically, is movement.
Walking to the grocery store can be action. An awkward conversation with a neighbor can be action.
Back story, by contrast, is not action. Explanation or exposition is inaction. So, when you hear that it’s best to begin your story with action, what that really means is that it’s best not to begin your story with exposition.
Begin with a Scene
Of course, that doesn’t mean that just any physical action works at the beginning of a novel or memoir. It still needs to be action that engages the reader and communicates information important in defining the story.
One of the best ways to do this is with a scene.
A scene can be far more effective than exposition or explanation in establishing the status quo that your eventual inciting incident—the plot beat that sets your story into motion—will disrupt. It’s an opportunity to show the setting your characters occupy, and to introduce your protagonist in the context of her everyday life.
Consider: Is there a way you can encapsulate the status quo in a single episode? You might even think of it as a short story depicting a day in your character’s life. An effective opening scene in the best first chapter for your book is likely to include the following:
- Setting. A scene takes place in a particular location, defined by specific detail we can see, hear, smell, touch, or taste.
- Characters. The movements and motivations of characters—what they want and need in a given scene—is what defines the action.
- Action. That’s what we’ve been discussing all along. In a scene, your character takes specific action for a defined purpose.
In this respect, the film analogy we considered isn’t far off. You don’t need an explosion like a James Bond film, but nearly every successful film you’ve seen, whether high-budget action thriller or Oscar-winning drama, begins with a scene that conveys details of character and setting critical to the plot or theme. Imagining your story as a film may help you discover that perfect first scene.
Begin with Conflict
It’s true that a story’s primary conflict emerges with the inciting incident, and the inciting incident usually follows the opening pages—but that doesn’t mean life isn’t filled with everyday conflicts that provide an understanding of your characters and status quo. Suppose a character leaves his house in the morning to find a parking ticket on his windshield. If your character struggles with bad luck, then such a discovery conveys useful information that helps define him. If his life is an everyday struggle to make ends meet, then maybe the ticket is another expense he can’t afford. The novel isn’t going to be about the parking ticket specifically, but the ticket reveals the conflict that defines the status quo.
Depending on the specific character you’re writing, any kind of conflict can be important—as long as it’s important to them and relevant to the narrative to come.
Perhaps more importantly, conflict is a crucial tool in hooking readers. It’s conflict that provides doubt in the outcome of any situation. Conflict gives readers cause to ask that most critical question: What happens next?
Any reader who wants to know what happens next will keep reading.
These aren’t the only ways to start a story effectively. A scene isn’t strictly required. It’s certainly possible to begin with a more general overview with an engaging narrative voice and compelling specific detail.
Whatever approach you choose, remember that the primary meaning of action is movement. This means that the best first chapter grabs your reader by genuinely beginning a story. A sense of momentum is the first and most important tool in keeping your reader interested through the first page, and the second, and the fifth, and beyond.
The next installment in our opening pages series will go into greater depth on the nature of exposition and how we might avoid it. How can you show rather than tell when so much information seems essential? How can you explain everything properly without boring and losing your readers? For now, consider: What’s the best opening scene you’ve ever read in a book or seen in a film? What made it successful in capturing your attention? Let us know in the comments below!
Harrison Demchick came up in the world of small press publishing, working along the way on more than two dozen published novels and memoirs, several of which have been optioned for film. He is an award-winning, twice-optioned screenwriter, and the author of literary horror novel The Listeners. He’s part of The Writer’s Ally team as a developmental editor of fiction and memoir, for which he’s currently accepting new clients.