Hooking Readers With The First Chapter Of A Teen Novel, by Beth Revis
One of the things I’m really happy about with my own writing is the first chapter of Across the Universe (which you can find online at www.acrosstheuniversebook.com). Before and since, I’ve made it something of a habit to look at first chapters, paying special attention to what makes them tick.
1) Empathetic characters
Empathy doesn’t mean that you feel bad or good for a character; it means that you understand what the character is feeling and why. In my own novel, my main character, Amy, watches her parents undergo a painful medical procedure. This is something that anyone can empathize with – we know how we would feel if our own parents or loved ones underwent a painful procedure. This immediately puts us in the picture with the main character. Possibly the most important thing you can do as a writer is create empathetic characters. Think of Katniss and her love for Prim in The Hunger Games – that was chapter 1. Think of Bella meeting Edward in Twilight or Harry Potter becoming an orphan. These are things with which we can empathize.
2) Sympathetic situation
While your characters need to be empathetic, it’s good to start the story with a sympathetic situation. You have character who you can almost visualize as yourself – you understand where they’re coming from and who and why they are. Now put them in a situation we wouldn’t want to be in. Make us feel bad that these characters we identify with are in a bad situation. This is the Hunger Games and Harry’s cupboard under the stairs.
3) It is what it says it is on the cover
You should also definitely give some hint of what the book is. You’re giving readers a taste of the whole book in the first chapter. If it’s a sci fi novel, as mine is, you need a spaceship or cryogenic freezing. If it’s a survival story like The Hunger Games, have Katniss shoot her bow. Harry mentions magic. Elizabeth Bennet’s mother in Pride and Prejudice mentions marriage. Whatever your story is overall must have a hint of it here, in the first pages. I should know what genre you’re writing not from your cover or your back jacket description, but from your first chapter.
4) Immediate conflict as a foreshadow to future conflict
Writers are often told to start their novels with a bang – but that can often lead to overly dramatic (and melodramatic) first chapters. Instead, try to mirror a larger conflict within the first chapter with something smaller. In my novel, Amy watching her parents being cryogenically frozen mirrors how later, when she wakes up, she has to make tough decisions without them. For The Hunger Games, Katniss’s hunt in the first chapter mirrors the battle for survival that the whole book revolves around. For Lucy Pevensie in The Chronicles of Narnia it’s the way her brother Edmond treats her.
It’s hard to identify exactly what it is that makes a first chapter work. However, analyze some of your favorites and I think you’ll see the things I’ve listed above.
Beth Revis’s author website: www.bethrevis.com
United States (and beyond)
United Kingdom (and beyond)
Australia (and beyond)
Writing Teen Novels