As a writer, I love writing. And reading. And the more I write and read, the more I think about how to make the perfect, captivating chapter 1. As with all writing, there’s not set answer, but I have some ideas.

an open book, laying in the grass, with some wildflowers laying on the pages and the text "What Makes a Captivating Chapter 1"

Chapter 1 is crucial for grabbing the reader’s attention and getting them to continue reading. But it’s also really hard to say definitively what makes the best chapter 1.

As someone who reads pretty much everything, and who has written nonfiction, fiction, and worked as a ghostwriter doing a billion other types of writing, I do think I have a pretty good idea of how you can make a reader keep going.

These are by no means hard and fast rules. But it’s a good start.

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Captivating Book Essentials

First, we must acknowledge that not every captivating book will be cut from the same cloth. The things I want in a captivating murder mystery are ABSOLUTELY NOT the things I want from a captivating romance.

And I think it goes without saying that different people find different things captivating. So there’s probably not a universal way to write a book that captures the attention of your audience and, what works for one author won’t work for another.

With that in mind, I will say that I do believe there are certain elements that can work across genres. But maybe not all the time?

Every story needs something different, and you should never add standard elements just for the sake of having them. I think writers and fiction writing instructors get caught up in judging classic stories based on certain criteria, and they then go about the process of critiquing well-loved stories for not having certain bits and pieces.

But that doesn’t mean the stories aren’t lovable and that people aren’t still picking up copies of them left and right. It just means that those stories probably didn’t need those certain elements.

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Elements of a Captivating Chapter 1

Honestly, books are individualistic, stubborn creatures, and they each need their own little bits and pieces. Let the book you’re writing tell you what it needs. But if your book is being quiet, then you can take a look at these elements.

001: Interesting characters.

I hate flat characters or characters that have no affect on the plot or even the other characters around them. I hate characters that are meant to be so edgy for the sake of edginess, and I definitely hate characters that fit archetypes that don’t resonate with me.

With that said, I don’t necessarily need characters to be designed for me. I just need the characters to be interesting. I have learned a lot about writing from The Fast and the Furious film franchise, and one thing I love is the character backstories. Everyone in those movies has a BACKSTORY.

Let me see their habits and hobbies and how they interact with their world. It doesn’t have to be weird or unique, it just has to interest me. And that could mean the characters are genius-level puzzle solvers trying to take down a corporation, or a bookstore owner in a small seaside town.

Interesting can mean a lot of things. So make characters I want to spend some time with.

002: A fun setting I can understand.

Setting is huge. I’m notorious for enjoying books that are more vibes than plots. So a cozy world that I want to hang out in is enough for me.

But I also enjoy a world that takes some time to understand. The key for me is that I have to be able to understand the basics in the first chapter. I hate the impenetrable feeling that some sci-fi novels can have. Granted, I only read sci-fi on occasion, so there are some genre conventions and even more subgenre fare that is hard for me to get into.

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It’s worth noting that sometimes fantasy can feel this way too.

Basically, I’m all for an intricate story world, but I have to be able to understand it at the outset, and learn more as I go.

003: An idea of things to come.

A captivating chapter 1 has to give me some information about the story that I’m jumping into. I want to know the general vibe of the book and what sort of adventure I’m in for. Sure, I know twists and turns are on the menu as the chapters go by, but I want to know what kind of book I’m reading at the outset.

I don’t handle big shifts well, or stories that get really far, then the author realizes they wrote themselves into a corner and suddenly needs to add a new POV character to make it all work.

Chapter 1 is a covenant between the author and reader. The author needs to let the reader know what’s in store, and the reader can then agree to come along on the ride.

004: Pacing that pushes me into the story.

This is the trickiest thing to nail, I suppose because every story needs a different pacing, and every reader is looking for a different vibe and mood when they pick up a book.

So, let’s look at it this way. The pacing needs to match the story you’re telling. Sure, you want to keep the reader turning the pages. But you also want the story to unfold in the way that’s it needs to. I would also say that if you’re a relatively new author or don’t have a huge following, it may be a good idea to pace your book on the faster side of things, just to grab your audience and get them moving. You haven’t proven yourself to them yet, and they will have less patience for your story than they would for their favorite author.

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But with that said, again, let the story lead you. And know that sometimes, your pacing just won’t work for everyone.

005: A story question that makes me keep going.

At the end of the day, I need the story to make me want to keep reading. And the best way to do that is to set something up in the first chapter that will be addressed by the end.

This doesn’t mean you have to reinvent the wheel. It does mean that the question has to be compelling enough that I want to stick around in that setting with those characters. And yeah, it’s probably going to be a story question that has been asked so many times before. But that’s okay. I love a new story.

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What Makes a Captivating Chapter 1 for you?

How do you define a captivating book? What does a captivating chapter 1 look like for you? What is something you can’t stand in the first chapter of a book? How do you determine if you keep reading or DNF?

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