Writing the first chapter (or opening) is super hard. It might even be the bane of our writing existence. It is the most revised chapter in the history of revising chapters. Just ask any writer.
There's a lot of pressure to get it right. After all, a great deal rides on the first chapter - it gives readers a sense of your writing style, it showcases your character's voice, it must create an immediate connection to your protagonist, it must hook readers, it must be engaging, it must show the character's normal world, it goes on and on - it's no wonder writers struggle with it.
Below are some tips to write a compelling first chapter that will reel in your readers and have them sitting up straighter in their seats, unable to flip the pages fast enough.
There are basic requirements for an opening. One of the most important elements to keep in mind is to write the opening scenes using your story's unique hook. Include the protagonist's name, and if possible, the protagonist's age. What does the protagonist want more than anything? (they might not know exactly what they want, they may only know that they are dissatisfied with the way things are). Showing what the protagonist wants is one of the most important elements to get across. In addition, start giving hints of the protagonist's flaw, fear, or misbelief. And if possible, give a hint of the story's overall theme.
Next, consider what scene will best show the protagonist’s "normal" world. What scene would show how they are dissatisfied with their life currently because they don't have what they want? For example, if they dream of opening their own restaurant, show them working for a low-paying, unsatisfying job at a diner. To add even more conflict, show them working for a total jerk of a boss.
The protagonist should also have a goal in the first chapter, something they are actively pursuing, and something related to the main internal goal, but it should not be the main goal. Continuing with the example above, our protagonist's goal is to get the assistant manager position (she "believes" this will make her happy) but it won't, because deep down, her dream is to open her own restaurant and be her own boss.
For more information about the character's internal goal and flaw, fear, or misbelief, see Character Arc in a Nutshell.
Dramatize Instead of Summarize
In my opinion, the single best way you can level-up your prose is to dramatize your scenes rather than summarize, otherwise known as show instead of tell. If you can master dramatizing your scenes, you've won half the battle. This is not to say you can't have summarization at all, but rather it's a balancing act. There should be some summarization, for instance when a scene would otherwise slow the pacing, or when the character would be performing mundane tasks, or to fast-forward time, as examples.
In the first chapter, you'll want to dramatize the scenes as much as possible. Leave out backstory and flashbacks as well - save those for later chapters. If you must include flashbacks or backstory, limit it to just one or two lines, or a few words weaved into another line, and only enough to give the reader a sense of what you are trying to convey.
Readers want to feel like they are living in your story. They want to feel the emotions of your protagonist. They want to be in on the protagonist’s thought process and see how they come to decisions. Readers want to connect to the protagonist through the protagonist's want and their flaw/fear/misbelief. They want to know what your character knows and they want to be fully immersed in the story as if they are experiencing it as it happens. Readers want to live it. This is why they read.
Here's another way to think about dramatizing/showing your story rather than summarizing/telling your story: What's more exciting:
A friend telling you about the new Star Wars ride at Disneyland, OR, getting to experience it yourself?
Your partner telling you about the new Jurassic Park movie, OR, watching it yourself?
Your sister telling you how cool camping is, OR, going camping yourself?
These are examples of tell vs. show and how readers want to experience the story as it plays out – in other words, they want to live it, not be told how it happens.
Make Readers Care About the Protagonist
Make readers care about your protagonist so they want to continue reading about what happens to them. For the most part, the character should be caring and compassionate. Unless you’re specifically writing about a character who is not and that’s what their journey will be about. But even if you have an unlikeable protagonist, you'll have to make readers care about them. There is a fine line that writer's can't overstep when it comes to creating unlikeable characters, or they'll lose reader interest.
You can make readers care by showing what their circumstances are - what obstacles they're facing. For an unlikeable protagonist, this is especially important, because likely their background or a tragic history shaped their unlikeable personality, and if readers can see how they are suffering or how they're treated in the opening scene, it will go a long way to helping readers understand and connect to the protagonist, whether unlikable or not.
Another way to make readers care about the protagonist is to show them being compassionate toward someone else in the opening. This can either be in physical form or showing readers with their thoughts. Bonus points if it's someone the protagonist doesn't know. When the protagonist performs this act, there should be some emotion behind it, genuine emotion that readers can sink their heart into.
For example, perhaps the protagonist is in a rush to get to work because if she's late one more time, she'll be fired. But an elderly woman stumbles and falls in front of her as they're about to cross the street. Everyone else is passing the woman by, but the protagonist decides to stop and help the woman cross safely. She has risked her job to help someone in need - I don't know anyone who wouldn't connect with a protagonist that thinks of others while risking their livelihood.
Ground the Reader
To prevent readers from being pulled out of your story, be sure to ground them in time, place, and what is happening.
Ground the reader in time and place. Readers can get easily confused if they don't know where the story is taking place and at what time it’s taking place. For example, does the story take place in the kitchen, dining room, a corporate office, a tire shop, a mall, etc. What is the time period and time of day: Does it take place today, in the 1920’s, or medieval times. Does it take place during the day, the afternoon, or at night?
Ground the reader into what is happening. Be specific with details and show the reader through the protagonist's eyes. What is happening? Who are the players? What is the protagonist thinking? What do they see? What are they feeling? Nothing should be vague.
There Should be Conflict
Finally, there should be conflict – this doesn’t necessarily mean a huge battle or chase scene. It could be as simple as a character telling a lie and worrying about getting caught. It could be one spouse wanting to move across the country but the other doesn't and there are threats of divorce involved. Perhaps the CEO is forcing some employees to take a pay cut and the employees are rebelling.
Whatever you decide, there should be conflict in the opening chapter.
Need help with Story Structure and Plotting? See my Story - 4-Week Coaching Package to nail down your story structure, shape your story's world, and create compelling characters. A first chapter requirements worksheet is also included.