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Seven Sizzling Tips to Write That Absolutely Killer First Chapter

What about you? As a reader, how important is the first chapter? As a writer, do you find it difficult to get right?
I’m not much for doling out writing advice, but I did a quick guest post for the Insecure Writers Support Group site on producing that absolutely killer first chapter.
A first chapter is a tricky beast. If you don’t get it right, you’ll lose your reader in a flash. I’m sharing an excerpt of that post here–you can read it in its entirety in the link below.

Irrespective of genre, writing the beginning of a novel is all about seducing the reader. In today’s world of easily available and multiple avenues of entertainment, a novel has to compete with far more than other novels.

You need a beginning that will snag the reader’s attention right off the bat.

As humans, we’re geared to find answers to questions and notice anything that is out of the ordinary. Without these two essential skills, we wouldn’t have lasted long in a pre-historic jungle. This is why stories hold our interest, why readers pick up stories to read.

Here’s how to hook their attention, and keep it:

1. Write a killer first line or paragraph.


That first line needs to lead into the second and the third.

You can either go with a big voice, active opening like: “Call me Ishmael.”
Or something off-kilter: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
You can also set the tone of the entire tale with the first paragraph:

“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”


2. Give the Who, Why, What, Where, How.


A writing teacher I once learned from, said: While telling your story, imagine your reader has been in a coma, and that you have to orient them to what happened when they were unaware. Who are the characters? What do they want, what are they up to, and why? How do they achieve it? Where are they?
Not in a journalistic fashion (though exceptions to this exist, depending on the voice of your narrator), but so that the reader is somewhat oriented in your world.
In my recent novel, THE BLUE BAR, I spend a lot of time making sure the reader sinks into the setting, all the while curious about this child-woman in a blue-sequinned saree, posing at a crowded railway station for the pleasure of a distant voyeur.
What about you? As a reader, how important is the first chapter? As a writer, do you find it difficult to get right?
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Damyanti Biswas

Damyanti Biswas is the author of You Beneath Your Skin and numerous short stories that have been published in magazines and anthologies in the US, the UK, and Asia. She has been shortlisted for Best Small Fictions and Bath Novel Awards and is co-editor of the Forge Literary Magazine. Her literary crime thriller series, the Blue Mumbai, is represented by Lucienne Diver from The Knight Agency. Both The Blue Bar and The Blue Monsoon were published in 2023.

I appreciate comments, and I always visit back. If you're having trouble commenting, let me know via the contact form, or tweet me up @damyantig !

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  • hilarymb says:

    Hi Damyanti – certainly we need to be drawn in at the beginning. I read few fiction books … so am caught up via recommendation of a blogger now-a-days … I’ve always learnt from your stories … great understanding of characters and I’ve a friend who’s moved from the States to Mumbai … so relate to a point! Cheers Hilary

  • Mark Murata says:

    Very good. Hook them at the start. One author said the really interesting part of his story started at chapter 13. He cut out the first 12 chapters of his manuscript.

  • Jemima Pett says:

    After several books, I have learnt the best way for me to write a sizzling first chapter (apart from using all your advice) is to write the first ten, then throw away the first two. Chapter three usually works as the best ‘first chapter’, with a bit of tweaking!

  • Timely advice, Damyanti. I am working on those openings right now!

  • Thank you. Some great tips (and examples). Getting my interest is important – but so is maintaining it. There is a reason that writers are my heroes.

  • And it was a great set of instructions on how to do that!