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5 Rules For Chapter One Of Your Book -- by Dan Alatorre

There are five rules for chapter one of your book and here they are:

1. Start the story as late as possible
2. Have a grabber opening
3. Make the reader care, usually via the MC
4. What are the stakes? What can be gained or lost?
5. End with a cliffhanger so we go to chapter 2

Need more info? Some details? Let’s read on then, shall we?

1 Start the story as late as possible
Most authors bury the really interesting stuff a few paragraphs in, or worse, in chapter two or three. What’s the first interesting thing that happens in your story? Start there.

2 Have a grabber opening
I like a “grabber” opening to a story and especially the opening chapter. Stories that hook a reader right away and keep the reader turning pages are stories that get read – and will receive comments like “I couldn’t put it down.” Of course, that’s not always possible, but do your best. Like I said, most authors bury the really interesting stuff a few paragraphs in. At least don’t do that.

3 Make the reader care, usually via the MC
Because if readers don’t care… they don’t care. Do you intentionally do stuff – voluntarily – that you don’t want to do? Reading your book is not a job requirement. It’s supposed to be fun, a diversion.

4 What are the stakes? What can be gained or lost?
We know a story’s supposed to have conflict. A story were nothing bad happens is a DULL story, as in, nobody’s reading it. Put your character up a tree and throw rocks at them. Tension. Conflict. All that good stuff. But it starts in chapter 1 by letting the reader know what is at risk.

5 End chapter ONE with a cliffhanger so we go to chapter TWO

Just about anything can be a cliffhanger if you do it right. Ask a question in chapter one that we have to go to chapter two to find the answer. Which we won’t do if we don’t care. Of course, that’s not always possible, but most authors should usually end their chapter a few lines or paragraphs before they actually end it. Instead, we resolve a question on OUR mind, and we stop – big mistake. Leave it for chapter two to resolve it, and readers have to read on.
There are more, but this is good to get started. And chapter ONE’s job is NOT to do everything!

What do YOU try to do in your first chapter?

Dan Alatorre is the author of several bestsellers and the hilarious upcoming novel “Poggibonsi: an italian misadventure.”
You can check out his work at

Posted by Dan Alatorre 22 Sep 2015 at 01:56
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Responses to this blog

Trevose 22 Sep 2015 at 16:02  
Generally I agree with all of this, and always things to keep in mind though I'm not sure all are always needed. My larger quibble is that readers usually only get to Chapter 1 after they have... 1) navigated to their genre, 2) read the title, 3) seen the cover art, 4) (if on line) seen the review "score", and 5) read the blurb. All these things set the stage and can mitigate these guidelines, which can get overlooked at a site such as this one. So though these are all good food for thought, one can still be successful while varying from this. Indeed, it occurs to me that really clever writers could turn some of this on its head to manipulate reader expectations to their advantage.

Dangit 22 Sep 2015 at 16:32  
Yeah. Talk to 'em, Trevose. Tell 'em what's really going on.
Dalatorre 22 Sep 2015 at 20:47  
You make a great point, Trevose. A book buyer will come to the story after having read a synopsis or the back of the book information. In that text will lie some plot points, sometimes big ones. It makes a big difference, as I am finding out with my latest story here, whether people come to it armed with a synopsis or not. I usually skip the notes for stories I see on CC; I almost never buy a book without reading the blurb. As writers, we need to know where our story is headed and govern ourselves accordingly.
Trevose 23 Sep 2015 at 00:30  
Dalatorre, Well said. And absolutely yes: "It makes a big difference...whether people come to it armed with a synopsis or not." And it can be for the better or for the worse. Though I find tremendous value here, CC is not the real world (on several counts), so you have to prepare and calibrate accordingly. ...and I'll critique the story you have up right now...looks interesting.
Magicwandu 23 Sep 2015 at 02:11  
Rule number one: write it truthfully and well.
Rule number two: don't cleave to anybody else's rules.
Rule number three: you do not talk about fight club.
Jaredg 23 Sep 2015 at 10:26  

Rule number three: you do not talk about fight club
That should be rule number one and two.
Redwyvern 23 Sep 2015 at 22:23  
I have a question about rule 3. Do we really need a MC that the audience cares about? Do we really need to have a relatable MC?

In The Talented Mr. Ripley, we have an MC who is a complete jerk (somebody the audience doesn't want to be), yet the antagonist and other characters are more of a jerk than the MC.

What are your thoughts on this?
Dalatorre 23 Sep 2015 at 22:50  
Boblankin, they usually have to care about something or the tend to stop reading. It doesn't have to be the MC at all, but typically it is. A car scene in a rented Corvette where the passenger is the aunt of the 15 year old driver trainee (her niece), and they segue into a heated and shocking argument about the aunt apparently sleeping with the father of the young driver (the aunt's brother in law)... well, they wreck into a utility pole that "came out of nowhere."

We may care about whether the aunt really slept with the young girl's dad

We may care about whether they are hurt in the wreck

We may only care about the Corvette getting smashed up

But we should probably care about something.
Dangit 24 Sep 2015 at 04:06  
Rule number one: write it truthfully and well.
Rule number two: don't cleave to anybody else's rules.
Rule number three: you do not talk about fight club.
Ahhh. Now I know what my problem is. I lie and fib in my stories. Wait. That means I'm obeying rule two? All I got to say about three is, I'm so tired of putting ice on my eye. I gotta learn to duck.
Purpleink 25 Sep 2015 at 04:02  
How do you write prologues? I love prologues because I write a lot of fantasy, make-believe worlds. And I treat the prologue as a space where I can introduce the concept of the world, its history so to speak.

Then chapter one begins as you have suggested above, except I struggle to keep the suspense, as I feel like a lot of things can be guessed at on the basis of the prologue even though I did not introduce much of the main character. So then I scrap the prologue and go with just the first chapter.

But its too confusing on its own, so I do some explaining of the world in the first chapter. However, at this point, as I have introduced the MC as well as the world, I do it in the perspective of the MC, and find myself giving too much up within the first chapter. So essentially I am asking advice on how to write a good prologue, or how to best introduce a fantasy world concept without spilling it all in the first chapter, yet at the same time not losing the reader along the way from the ambiguity of the world.

I truly admire the authors that can transport us to another world, make it feel like home and then raise the suspense of the character's issues, which were subtly there from the start.
Rhodes 25 Sep 2015 at 18:50  
I look at this the same way I look at any other set of rules. They're nice guidelines, but not unbreakable laws, and if you're going to break them, have a reason why.

Dan, I think you have good intentions in posting this and I thank you.
Larrue 25 Sep 2015 at 19:10  
I'm of the opinion that the really important 'hook' for a book is the back of the book blurb. THAT is what gets me to decide to read or not. So a super-exciting, grabbing 'hook' in the first few lines is nice, but not absolutely necessary.
What is necessary is that by the end of the first few pages, you've interested them enough to read a few more pages. Then a few more. Till they are at the end and wanting another one.

Rhodes 25 Sep 2015 at 19:53  
Larrue, that may work for a self published author. But if you're going for the traditional publishing route, it's not just the reader you have to impress. You now have to wow bored slush pile readers, busy editors, and picky publishers.

So it's not about what's right or wrong, but what path you want to go and how to get there.
Peachalulu 25 Sep 2015 at 20:38  
These guidelines aren't bad. But grabber beginnings can be done so poorly I'm not really for promoting them. Unless you're a capable writer that can handle them.

3 things I find are overlooked in descent beginnings -
1. Orient the reader - please don't pussyfoot where the mc is. I don't care if he wakes up in a damp, dark basement - but when you start to pussyfoot the reader imagines far more fancier things and then gets disappointed. I read one story about two characters being chased and after two pages, I still wasn't sure where they were running - a giant maze, a hospital or a spaceship.

2. Let us know why this character deserves a story - so many writers are focused on the plot that the mc is a thin broth of any starlet that auditioned for the hunger games. Bland and pretty. Give us something original. A thought, an opinion, a gesture. Something.

3. Tone - give us writing that's not just functional but interesting.

Caress the detail, the divine detail - Nabokov

Kusterer 26 Sep 2015 at 19:11  
Lawrence Block in Telling Lies for Fun and Profit suggests regularly switching the first chapter, which inevitably has too much back story, and the second chapter. You'll automatically "start in the middle." That's what I've done with the next revision of the WIP running through CC now.
Dalatorre 27 Sep 2015 at 13:15  
And that's why Baskin Robbins has so many flavors. There are a lot of ways to do it right - and a lot of ways to do it wrong. And if you're doing it wrong, these five rules will help you. A first chapter cannot be everything to everyone, but it can and should usually do a few things.

As for doing it well, that's a given. Bad writing isn't magically made better by band-aids. But since many people are here to learn how to improve their writing, that's best covered individually through critiques.

Dalatorre 27 Sep 2015 at 13:32  
Consider whether you need a prologue at all. My guess is you don't. You can reveal the information there over the course of the story, through dialogs and other ways, and you may not need it at all. Maybe you as the author needed to write it as a reference for yourself, but we readers probably don't.

It varies by genre, but the sci fi and fantasy folks tend to go crazy with their prologues. My advice is pick your three favorite books from the genre you want to write in, and see what they did.

I read an amazing fantasy story here on CC that I picked up in chapter four and I was completely mesmerized. When I was about 17 chapters in, the author and I discussed the need for the first three chapters. The story was so amazing, I as a reader felt like I was running to catch up, and trying to unravel the mystery as I went. After reading the first three chapters, I didn't think they were necessary.

Several people have said that my own current WIP on CC starts with what they feel is basically a prologue. When I get to the end, we'll decide whether it was necessary. If it's not, it'll go away (maybe it'll be website material). That's why it's a Work In Process. I'm viewing the first and last chapters as an amazing set of bookends that will blow readers' minds, but only when you read the last sentence of the final chapter. The story will still be pretty amazing without them.

And that's what you want. Write what you have to write, then edit out what you have to edit out. First drafts are first drafts for a reason. They need trimming and other sets of eyes can help you do that.

Most of the time I read prologues, I come down in one of two conclusions: it wasn't necessary for the story you were about to tell (because you could fold it in later) or it was a great story I wish you'd actually have written instead of just kind of glossing over.
Kids_table 27 Sep 2015 at 15:29  
As for the audience has to care about the character I think that particular rule is often misspoken. Word choice is, should be, important to us as writers. More accurately I think the intent should be expressed root for the character.

I'm not sure anyone cared about Bateman but they wanted him to go on in as a sort of morbid curiosity, in a can't-look-away-from-a-carwreck sort of way, which I think can be effective.
Card 27 Sep 2015 at 16:34  
As for the audience has to care about the character I think that particular rule is often misspoken. Word choice is, should be, important to us as writers. More accurately I think the intent should be expressed root for the character.

I'm not sure anyone cared about Bateman but they wanted him to go on in as a sort of morbid curiosity, in a can't-look-away-from-a-carwreck sort of way, which I think can be effective.
Case in point, reading one of the GoT books. Cersei and Jaime... I'd kind of like them both to die. But it's near impossible not to root for them when I'm deep within their POV. This is what's so fascinating about POV, that if done right, you can get people rooting for the villain.
Courage doesn't always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says I'll try again tomorrow.
- Mary Anne Radmacher

Jenstra 29 Sep 2015 at 08:17  
Starting a story can be so PAINFUL. I have revised and revised and REVISED the first three chapters of my book so many times that I could have written three other books if I had just let them be. These tips are very helpful. Sometimes having another set of eyes on your work can also help, that's one of the things I love about CC and the critique partners I found since I joined. When it's impossible to see the forest for the trees, having a partner to check things over can be such a great help.
Vkkerji 3 Oct 2015 at 11:46  
Thank you so much for your inspiring thoughts. After completing my first draft, I was worried about my first three chapters. Now it is clear to me that I must write different versions and ask for writers opinions. Otherwise, the rest of the 60K words will go for a toss.

Thank you so much!
Araviapa 18 Oct 2015 at 22:25  
I visited an interesting site on the net, about how audio books work. For example, itunes audio is limited to the first five minutes of any book they have. I made me consider what would be in the first five minutes of reading my book, I rewrote the first chapter according to that guide post. I will be saving the opening stuff I had for conversations bewteen characters later in the book.
I unknowingly used part of your rule about what is the first interesting thing that happens. I started, just slightly before that moment. In doing that, I had a set up of who was there, what were they doing in the moments before it happened and why did it affect them.
Thanks for the tips. They are useful and I am making progress, though it is more difficult then I would have imagined.
Mayaone 2 Jan 2016 at 07:47  
Regarding prologues, I love them but for a different reason. I don't write mystery but it is my favorite genre for reading. I have seen prologue's done that really get me into the book. When I wrote my first book, I used a mysterious prologue to write a subplot that meets the main part of the book at the end. I am doing this again in my new book. I call it a threaded narrative or a intertwined novel. Also I read somewhere that you should throw your first couple of chapters out but I don't always agree with this. I knew my first chapter was my hook because I had written it years before I decided to even wrote a whole book. This time I'm not as sure so I'm here to get help. Thank you for the tips. Aloha

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