How to Write a Book: Writing a First Chapter That WORKS by Debut Author Erin Stewart

Erin Stewart, author of the debut YA novel Scars Like Wings, has some writing tips that all aspiring writers could use. How do you hook a reader in that very first chapter? Check out her thoughts. . . .

The first chapter is daunting. It has to do so much. Introduce characters. Hint at conflict. Set the scene. Establish voice. Hook the reader. That’s a tall order for 2,000 words, so let’s break down exactly what that first chapter needs to do.

First and foremost, your book’s first chapter is your contract with your reader. This means the tone, writing style, and overall feel of your book need to continue from these first pages through the rest of the book. This is where you tell your reader what the book is about and what this journey will be like.

Essentially, this means that first chapter has to work HARD. Harder than all the other chapters. For me, it’s overwhelming to think of all the things those first pages must accomplish. If you try to address everything, you’ll end up with an unenjoyable mishmash of details and information that have no place in that first interaction with your reader.

So I always focus on two things in the first chapter: voice and conflict.

The voice is what pulls your reader in (a must-have for the first page), and the conflict is what will make your reader turn to chapter 2.

Two things to focus on when writing your first chapter:

1. Voice:

Your first page needs to come out swinging with a strong, unique voice. Your word choice, sentence length, and rhythm all contribute to the voice of your character or narrator. Take time to make sure your first page sings.

2. Conflict:

There is no story without conflict, so we need to get a sense of it in this first chapter. This does NOT have to be (and usually shouldn’t be) the central conflict of the story. That will just bog your first pages down. Instead, it should either be a hint of this larger conflict or a smaller, introductory conflict that mirrors the central conflict. It needs to be enough that your reader wants to know how things turn out. And since your voice is so compelling, the reader is already invested in the character and will need to find out how this conflict is resolved!


Of course, you’ll need to put in other elements as you go, but if you nail these two things, everything else will fall into line.

One other note about first chapters:

A lot of writers think starting your story in medias res means you have to start in the middle of an exciting action sequence. That may work for some books, but for most (and definitely in contemporary writing), in medias res doesn’t mean in the middle of the action, it means in the middle of the story (it directly translates to in the middle of things). It may be a quiet scene, but as long as the emotion, tension, conflict, and voice(!) are present, it can be just as thrilling as a chase scene.

My final thought is to not obsess over first chapters during drafting.

Most of the time, I think I have started my book in the perfect place until I get about halfway through and realize what my story is actually about. Then I go back and overhaul my first chapter. And when I get to the end of the draft, I know even more, and I tackle chapter one again. Since your first chapter is essentially your last chapter in disguise, how can you really do it justice until you’ve written the last chapter?

So tell your inner perfectionist to shut up and just start writing the story, even if you don’t have the perfect beginning yet. You’ll find it along the way!

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