For Writers, Writer's Toolkit

5 Things to include in your first chapter

The opening paragraph for this year’s Women’s Prize x Grazia First Chapter competition has been written by none other than Tayari Jones, former Women’s Prize winner and internationally renowned author of An American Marriage. If you’re considering entering and need a little burst of inspiration before picking up your pen, here Tayari shares her top tips of things to include in your first chapter.

Five things to think about when writing your first chapter

Your mother was right: you only have one chance to make a first impression. This is true when it comes to meeting new people, but it’s also true when writing a novel.  Your opening chapter must convince a reader to keep turning pages – without seeming like you are trying too hard. It’s a daunting, but doable.  Here are some hints.

Set the tone

Is your book a thriller?  A moody meditation on the nature of family connection?  A humorous look at how we live today?  The reader should finish the first chapter knowing exactly what it is that she has signed up for.

Pack the room

Involve as many of the main characters as possible, even if it is just a passing mention.  When speaking about a novel, someone will ask “What is this about?”  But just as important is “WHO is this about?”

Look around

Where is your story set?  When?  Be clear to include details that illustrate the specifics of a particular time and place?  A little goes a long way to ground the reader in the world that you create.

Hop into the action

My mentor once said, “Remember, characters DO stuff.”   If someone were to ask you what happens in the first chapter, you should be able to give a clear response. This doesn’t have to be dramatic, but it must be illuminating.

Don’t block your flow

I hope these hints won’t cause you to feel self-conscious as you compose. Let these suggestions ride in the backseat as your muse takes the wheel. When you are done with the draft, think about my suggestions as you edit, making the opening stronger and ensuring that it adheres to your intentions.

You don’t have to know your intentions when you start to write. And if you do know them, feel free to change them as the story unveils itself. Don’t be rigid. Be ready to enjoy the magic that the story will reveal as it unfurls.

– Tayari Jones

Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones is out in paperback now.

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