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Karen Osman with laptop

In 2018, there were 191 million books sold and that’s just in the UK. Readers have so much choice so how can you, as a writer, make sure your book stands out?

One way is to ensure your first chapter is the best it can be.

Many readers will read the first few pages of a book before parting with their hard-earned cash, so your opening chapter needs to work hard. If readers aren’t captivated in the first few pages, then you’ve lost them.

To do this, you have to achieve many things including intriguing readers, capturing them with your style of writing, and ultimately making a promise that if they continue reading, they’re going to be entertained or educated or their problem will be solved. So let’s get specific - here are five things to include when writing your opening chapter.

1) Introduce your main character AND make the reader care

Whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction, the reader must connect with the main character. Firstly, they’ll want to know information such as their background, gender, and so on, but more importantly, the reader will want to know the emotions the character is feeling in the scene. How can you show the character’s humanity? What makes them relatable? It’s also worth remembering that whoever you introduce first in your book is most likely who your readers will invest in, so do consider this when using multiple characters.

2) Introduce the concept of the goal or objective of the main character

If you’re writing fiction, it might be difficult to introduce the goal of your main character so early on, but you can hint at it in your opening chapter. The seeds should be planted early and in literary terms, foreshadowing is a device used to do exactly this. This technique is also useful for creating suspense, a feeling of unease, a sense of curiosity, or mark that things may not be as they seem.

If you’re writing nonfiction, such as personal development book or a business book, this task is a little easier because you’re introducing the goal of the reader. For example, if it’s a book on time management, the goal might be for readers to have an extra hour to themselves every day. Make sure you stipulate that in the opening chapter so your reader knows what they will get out of reading your book.

3) Introduce the antagonist or the antagonistic concept & ignite conflict

When I say conflict here, I don’t necessarily mean a huge fighting scene, although you could if you chose to, but include conflict on a smaller scale. For example, in the opening of the Hunger Games, when everyone is waiting to see who will be called to participate in the Hunger Games competition, there’s tension there – a question for the reader. This helps build up to the central conflict which of course is: will Katniss survive the Hunger Games? By including a problem in your opening chapter, you’re hoping to engage the reader and make them sympathetic to your character.

4) Introduce setting

Introduce the time and place of your book to ground the reader. In the Kick Start Your Book With Karen programme, I use the example of the opening lines of Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenidies who introduces setting in a really interesting way:

“I was born twice: first as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.”

This sentence is captivating, not only conveying a sense of time and place but intriguing the reader to continue reading. It’s a fantastic example of show don’t tell.

However, you’re unlikely to have the space in the opening chapter to go into lots of detail about your setting. This can be challenging if you’re writing sci-fi or fantasy where the temptation is to world-build in great detail. Give an overview and then let the world develop throughout the story as it becomes relevant.

5) Set the Tone

It might sound obvious, but if you’re writing a humorous memoir, make sure that first chapter is full of humor. If you’re writing horror, is your opening chapter scary enough? The opening chapter will set the tone for the book – so make sure that reader’s expectations are fulfilled. If you’re writing a romantic comedy but open with a gory crime, the reader is going to be disappointed. You’ve probably come across examples where authors have used the weather to set the tone for the book – a dark, stormy night for a murder for example, but there are other ways to set the tone such as dialogue – a clipped, staccato conversation can imply a dangerous tone. Your opening chapter is your opportunity to establish the tone that the reader can expect from the rest of your story.


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I'm Karen, a best-selling novelist who left her corporate life to pursue my dream of becoming a writer. Since then, I've written everything from travel articles to web copy before winning a novel writing competition which led to a 3-book deal. 


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