First Chapters Checklist
It’s a cliché that you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression, but what a lot of authors should keep in mind is that clichés exist for a reason. Just like tropes, they’re incredibly effective and keep audiences coming back. So, with that in mind, let’s look into those opening few chapters with an eye as to what the reader needs to experience to keep on reading. Below is a checklist I’ve compiled as to what needs to be in those all-important first chapters, with a few examples from Game of Thrones at the end so we’re all on the same page.
As the great screenwriter Terry Rossio said, “Begin with a punch, end with a flurry,” which is what we’ll focus on here. And as much as I love this quote, I believe in terms of the first few chapters it should read “hook” rather than punch. Because that’s the real goal of those first few chapters: To hook the reader and ensure they care about your story. This is accomplished in several ways, but before we get to that, let’s look at structure a moment.
I’ve blogged about story structure several times now, and we’ll be focusing on what basically boils down to the SETUP phase today. And at first I thought all these components on the first chapters checklist needed to be completed in the very first chapter, but upon further consideration and research, I realized that this setup phase consists of about roughly 10% of a screenplay, which means you’ve got about 10% of your novel to get them all across. If your average novel runs about 100k words, math says you have about 10k, or about three chapters to work with here.
That includes the prologue, which has fallen out of vogue of late, but I believe is quite useful because it allows the author to establish the villain/ core conflict as a hook before launching into the protagonist’s preexisting world. This way the writer can just dive directly into the action for a dose of excitement before cooling everything off again with the everyday life of the characters that’s about to come to a crashing halt, but that probably deserves another future blog post on its own.
One last note on structure and the first chapters checklist: This section of the story ends with the introduction of the catalyst AS IT COMES IN CONTACT WITH THE PROTAGONIST. Yes, the core conflict can be introduced first in the prologue/ teaser, but this section ends once the protagonist is made aware of the challenge they must rise up against and overcome.
But now, without further ado, the checklist. Know that these don’t need to occur in any particular order, but they definitely all need to occur in your first 10%:
First Chapters Checklist
Core Concept/ Hook
Protagonist Introduction/ Preexisting life
Core Conflict/ Villain
Catalyst/ Call to Adventure
To unpack this list a bit:
Core Concept/ Hook – What is your story about? This is indeed your hook/ logline in prosaic form as you try to both tell your reader what the story will be about AND explain why/ how it’s different to every other story out there.
Tone – Nothing upsets audiences more than thinking they’re reading a book about X when it’s really Y, which is a dictionary definition of bait-and-switch in my mind. I know I’m not alone in despising it when I think I’m reading a Fantasy novel only to discover (surprise!) it’s a Romance midway through. A lot of this comes down to tone, which can be summed up as to which genre/ subgenre your book belongs to. Which needs to be apparent in those opening few chapters. So if it’s a Romance, own that genre right up front. Ditto for it’s a grimdark meditation on violence: Get that across at the onset so audiences know what they’ll be consuming for the rest of the story.
Setting – This ties back into tone in that you want to make your genre apparent through the details. To wit, if it’s a Fantasy novel, make sure to include some form of magic from the get go. You’ll also want to get across what time period/ culture you’re appropriating and riffing off of, which again comes down to details. Mentioning the characters’ clothing, surroundings, and weapons not only paints a pretty picture, but anchors the audience in something familiar before they go exploring your strange new world.
Literary Conceits – This one may seem a little odd, but it’s much like tone in that audiences hate it when you switch up your writing style midway through. So if you’re novel’s a multiple-POV epic, you better introduce those POVs off at the onset. Same if you’re doing a stream-of-consciousness style first person POV, or maybe an unreliable narrator. Let your audience know from the beginning what they can expect from your prose and style.
Protagonist Introduction/ Preexisting Life – I’ve written before about the importance of character introductions, so won’t repeat myself here. But not only does the audience need to see what the protagonist’s life is like BEFORE being thrown out of whack by the catalyst, but they also need to establish empathy with the protagonist, usually through some variation of Save The Cat. And, as the Terry Rossio quote points out, this is best done through something interesting the character does at the introduction.
Conflict/ Villain – What dire evil will your protagonists need to overcome over the course of their journey? Again, I’ve touched on this before and why I believe the prologue is the best place for this, so won’t repeat myself.
Catalyst – Remember that structure-wise, this setup phase ends when the protagonist comes into direct contact with some form of this conflict/ villain and then must decide how to react to it, thus creating the Debate section of the story where s/he refuses the call to adventure (to steal terms from Joseph Campbell there). The catalyst signals the end of the beginning as the story is now off and running.
No real reason for this image except I needed to break up the paragraphs.
Again, all these aspects in the first chapters checklist don’t really need to occur in any order (except probably Catalyst), but THEY ALL NEED TO OCCUR if the audience is to care about your story and have enough context to want to continue.
Although I hadn’t put this list together when I worked on The Woven Ring, it was certainly on my mind when I wrote it, at least unconsciously. It’s a dark Flintlock Fantasy story dealing with the aftermath of a civil war, so I kicked my prologue off with the first shots of that war to introduce both the Core Concept, Conflict, and Tone. I made sure to include the Setting with description of both the characters’ clothes and use of muskets to anchor the appropriated culture as well as a magical battle to give a taste of the world to come. Then, in chapter one, I introduced my protagonist and attempted Save the Cat as well as establish the Setting a bit more by introducing the discovery of her magical abilities and dealing with her brother, who will later act as the antagonist/ Core Conflict. Her affluence before the war I made sure to juxtapose with her hard times after the war starting in chapter two. In doing this, I also demonstrated my Literary Conceits in that this book would be two alternating timelines going forward. Finally, I concluded chapter two with the introduction of the Catalyst when Marta receives the job that will drive the rest of the series at the hands of her antagonist brother.
I honestly can't express how much I LOVE this cover of GOT.
But enough about a book all of six people have read; let’s delve into Martin’s Game of Thrones, which easily deserves a masterclass on how to kick off not only a book, but a whole epic series. We open with a Nightwatch scouting party north of the wall, where he makes it a point to mention not only their clothes (my, he loves describing clothes) and weapons but paints a pretty bleak and breathtaking picture of the landscape to establish Setting and Tone. Then the dark tone is further reiterated when they encounter the first White Walker, which gets across Core Concept and the Conflict the rest of the series will be dealing with.
Then in chapter one we jump to life at Winterfell, where all the Starks are introduced in situations perfectly suited to their personalities (Arya is shooting the bow while Sansa disapproves, Rob is leaderlike while Bran climbs) to establish the Protagonists. Eddard and Jon get an even better character showcasing as they execute the survivor from the prologue, which also reiterates the Setting and Tone as we see how harsh life is in Martin’s world.
Then in chapter two we discover the Literary Conceit in that each chapter will be told from a different character POV as well as encounter the Catalyst that kicks the story off properly when the learn King Robert is on his way there in what will amount to the event that will throw their preexisting life (and the story itself) into chaos.
What’s most impressive about this is that all this is accomplished within what my paperback tells me is 27 pages, which is significantly shorter than the 800+ this book is composed of and way under the 10% budget. Hell, fan favorites Tyrion and Daenerys haven’t even shown up yet, but the story is already incredibly compelling because Martin has already checked every single box on the first chapters checklist.
And while I know he probably didn’t have these points consciously in mind as he wrote these chapters 20+ years ago, it would probably behoove any author to keep them in mind before setting fingers to keyboard.