No matter how you think you want to begin the first few pages of your book, there are other people with a vested interest in your first chapter. It may seem unfair but you first need to sell your story before it will ever be read. Your first chapter, and, even more importantly your first page, is your demonstration product for your sales pitch.
Your first sales pitch will be to an agent or publisher, or both. The second sales pitch is to the buyer in the bookstore, who may read the first few pages, a whole chapter, or simply judge your book by its cover and/or blurb. You don’t want to lose a sale with a weak opening page.
Agents and publishers have specific expectations of a first chapter. Although there are always exceptions, following the generally agreed guidelines as to what makes a good first chapter could improve your chances of having the rest of your manuscript requested, and eventually being offered a contract.
The first chapter should begin just before a pivotal event in your protagonist’s life. This is something that forces a change or a decision. The rest of the chapter sets up the action towards this change and the chapter ends with, or shortly after, the event.
With this sequence, you’ve set up a hook to encourage your readers to turn to chapter two, wanting to know how this change is going to affect the protagonist and what s/he’s going to do to resolve it.
A good outline of your story can really help when it comes to identifying where to begin your story. Sometimes the beginning point is not where you initially thought it was. It can even take several drafts and a thorough retrospective analysis of the plot before a better beginning point becomes clear. But it’s worth it.
Elsa Neal is a writer based in Melbourne, Australia. Browse through the resources for writers available at her website or follow her writing insights at her Fictional Life Blog.