First Acts, Chapters, Pages, and Lines

At this point in my growth as a writer I’m a plot-oriented“plantser,” combining some planning with some discovery writing. At the moment I’m working on improving my planningskills, preparing for arewrite of my 2018 NaNoWriMo science fiction mystery novelette, expandingit into a full novel. I’ve read advice that mysteries require more planning than some other genres. So I’m working on thoseskills, and this year I’m primarily working on developing more interesting characters. I’ve researched how to develop engaging characters , including developing character arcs based on the character’s negative core belief (“Lie” the character tells themselves). Based on advice that it can take time to build up reader interest in a character, I looked into how to write bridging conflicts to maintain reader interest while developingthe main plot. Now it’s time to start rewriting the first chapter, and I didn’t like my first attempt of a few weeks ago, so I did even more research. Here are the results.

As usual, I’m writing brief summaries of ideas that the original sources describe in more detail. Theyoften haveinteresting commentary and examples, so if you want to dig deeper, consult the links scattered throughout, and collected at the end. There is a lotof advice out there, so this summary is quite long. If you’re looking for quick advice, see Chuck Wendig’s 25 tips , or look at the sources below and pick a one or twowitha smallernumber. You might also want to read some first chapters as examples.

The Big Picture

Many of the articles started with similar advice: the first line, page, and chaptergrant you an “intellectual credit” so readers keep reading because they trust you to continue to deliver something interesting. Some readers stop if they’re not happy with the first line! Some agents and editors reject based on the first page. And, apparently, few people will give you more than a chapter. So there is tremendous pressure to get things right early in the text, and lots of advice on how to do that.
However, few sources talk about whento write the beginning, and what approach is best for different types of writer. Plantsers sometimes need thousands ofwords to “write themselves into the novel” (which isn’t inherently a bad thing – planners sometimes do the same thing with brainstorming and character sketches)and wind up throwing away the first few chapters; it’s a waste of time trying to polish, under those circumstances. Moreover, some subtler aspects depend on supporting the rest of the novel, and pretty much must be handled in revision after the first draft is complete. Some sources even suggested writing the first chapter last.
As with any set of writing rules, there are examples of successful novels that break them. The advice I found was often guides for beginners; we need to learn some widely-applicable good approaches before we takea different one.

Types of Start

There are four types of start , the first three of which are discouraged or even disparaged by almost all my sources, despite the existence of very good stories taking each of the other approaches:
  • A prologue, dealing with someone other than the main character, or with the main character at an earlier time than the main story; I deal with these later.
  • In media res , the opposite of a prologue, which is about the main character in the midst of intense action, followed by stepping back to a beginning that leads to that point (perhaps taking several chapters to do so). It may sacrifice some suspense at the beginning of the flashback, since we know the character will survive for a while, but may ramp up the tension when we catch up, since suddenly the character’s immunity is gone.
  • A frame, where the main plot is a story-within-a-story, perhaps returning to the frame at interludes. It can be less engaging if the frame characters are out of danger, but may help the reader get into the story as the frame characters get into it.
  • The most common approach, where the startup combines character development with conflict.
Much of the following advice seems to me to apply to all four.
A classic misleading piece of advice is to “start with action,” which seems to point toin media res,but many sources point out that most readers won’t care about even the most intenseaction if they don’t care about the characters. So the core advice is: start by showing an engaging character facing a problem they are working to solve. That’s the core meaning of “conflict,” of which thriller-style “action” is a special case.
This can be hard for a plot-oriented writer to accept; looking back, most of my previous efforts have characters that are slightly decorated cardboard. The sources hammered the point over and over again: an overwhelming percentage of readers these days, including agents and editors, expect interesting characters, right from the start.
Many sources talked about how much effort you have to put into the early pages, but a lot of that doesn’t have to happen in the first draft


I surveyed advice about first lines, first paragraphs, first pages, first chapters, and first acts.
  • The first act is roughly the first 20-30%, roughly to the point where the character is forced to act instead of react. It needs to convey all the necessary components of the story to set up the last 70-80%. During revisions it can be useful to apply “Chekhov’s gun” in reverse and revise the first act to include elements used later.
  • Some sources talk about first chapters, others about first scenes, but much of the actual advice doesn’t depend on whether you’re a scene-per-chapter person. Every scene has to matter.
At all levels of granularity, the kinds of things you have to get across were roughly the same. To engage the reader and ground them in the story, you have to convey a combination of:
  1. Who the protagonist is; make them engaging , including their personality, motivations (needs and wants), beliefs, and flaws (including the key ‘Lie’ they believe ).
  2. Why we care about them , and why they are the right person to focus on.
  3. The setting – where and when the story is taking place. At the Act level, there should be enough worldbuilding detail so there is no need to slow down for it in the later acts, but be sparing of it in the first pages. Show the setting as the character sees it , using all five senses; what kinds of details they notice varies from character to character.
  4. The conflict – what problem the protagonist is facing, and what’s the opposition, such as an antagonist. Conflict advances the plot, while revealing how the protagonist deals with problems. The first scene doesn’t need to involve the core conflict – it can bridge to one – but should have some connection with the rest of the novel.
  5. The stakes of the conflict: the consequences to the protagonist of success and failure.
  6. How the character feels about what is going on.
  7. Your authorial voice and that of the characters. The main advice I found is to let it develop as you write the novel, and make it more consistent during revision. Writing a lot will help, as will an editor.
  8. The tone – humourous, gritty, foreboding, dramatic, …; What emotions do you intend to evoke in the reader? This is mostly about how you say things, rather than what happens.
  9. The genre of the story – mystery, fantasy, science fiction, …
  10. The theme (s) the story explores, “the argument the tale is making” Even if you’re initially unaware of it, your story may convey a message the reader takes away from the experience, perhaps the same thing that motivated you to write the story. You can’t be heavy-handed about conveying it and may not realize what it is until you complete a draft, or get feedback.
Different granularities vary in how many of these elements to include, how words you get to use, and how much detail you can convey.
There are additional considerations for the opening of each book of a series, which I don’t plan to think about unless and until I start to write one.
The following deals with granularity in decreasing order of size.

First Act, Chapter or Scene

The first act needs to set up the promises that will be fulfilled in the rest of the story, establish the character arc, and fill in enough details to avoid slowing down what follows. It (and particularly the first thirty pages )definitely needs to develop all the elements in the list. Itmust be highly polished, with careful attention to specific word choices ; the early pagesdo a lot of the heavy lifting, and later chapters may be easier.They don’tneed constant action, and shouldn’tinclude the best moments in the whole story; you need to hold something back for the climax.
Thefirst chapter set s up the rest of the novel. Itneedsto start close to where the “real story” starts; one source suggested figuring out the inciting incident, and make that the secondchapter, with the first leading up to it, but other sources allow for more time and yet others suggest the first chapter.
Like all chapters, the firstneedsto follow proper scene structure , with a beginning, a middle, and an end, and get the reader to keep reading. Itmust:
  • Introduce the protagonist (about which more later).
  • Briefly establish the character’s normal life, grounding the setting in a particular place and time, possibly including the season and the weather.
  • Introduce a goal for the scene, which foreshadows the main conflict and is preferably the first “domino” to fall. The goal is met by an obstacle, leading to consequences that set up the next chapter, and indeed the whole book.
  • Show the protagonist’s reaction to what happens in the scene.
  • Introduce other important characters, though not too many, and including at least one supporting character.
  • Raise two major dramatic queries : one for the plot (will they achieve the visible, external goal) and one for the character (will they achieve their inner needs and begin to heal their emotional wounds). The major plot goal may fall into several categories : the need to win, stop something, deliver or retrieve something, or escape.
One way to decide what must happen in the first chapter is to list what must happen in the first act, and include justthe bare minimum.
The first draft of your first chapter or two may need to be thrown away, either because itstartswith too much backstory, infodumping, and description, or because writing later chapters leads you to recognize itneedsto set thingsup differently.
If there are multiple scenes in the chapter, subsequent ones need to transition smoothly, grounding the reader again. Make it clear who is involved in the scene, when it is relative to the previous scene, where the scene takes place, and what is going on.
Introducing any significant character must getthe reader interestedin their personalityvia description, action, and dialogue, plus (when there are several) keep the reader oriented as to which character they are via small clues; in particular, they need a name, and you need to help readers visualize the scene by grounding them in the setting. Each character should have a unique voice: what they say, why they say it, what words they choose, their body language, and what actions they take. Weave description into the story in small pieces. Give their gender and a sense of their age and appearance.
A carefully-crafted “character moment” can reveal many important characteristics; you can construct one by listing their characteristics, picking several, and revealing them via deliberately dramatized actions and via impressions carried in subtext.

First Page and Paragraph

The ten elements listed above apply at every level of granularity, but according to psychology , three are criticalfor the first page:
  • raise a question the reader wants answered,
  • make the viewpoint character compelling, and
  • show the emotional effect of the story on them.
The reader must feel, emotionally, what matters and what doesn’t. Decision-making requires emotion, not just rational calculation.
Some sources suggest other things besides, or in addition to, the ones in the main list above:
  • show a disturbance in the status quo;
  • build a lot of energy into the first paragraph;
  • consider other ways to grab reader attention, such a bit of unusual language.
Every word counts; at each smaller granularity, the need for polished prose increases.

Hooks and First Lines

The word “hook” gets used with several different meanings. In the 7-point structure , the hook is the initial conditions of the novel, which might take several pages or even scenes to establish. Commonly, ahook is a single line, particularly the first in the novel.
It may be useful to think of hooks of all granularities as story questions : things the reader will wonder about and for which they’ll want to find answers.
  1. Big questions relate to the core conflict and major turning points, explored throughout the book AND AFFECTING JUST About everything. For a mystery this might be “whodunit.” This may be the meaning of “hook” in the 7-point structure.
  2. Important questions that dig deeper into the overall story, exploring the character arc, subplots, and themes.
  3. Plot-driven questions that connect scenes; these include the single-sentence hooks mentioned above.
The definition I found most useful for short hooks, the third kind,is “individual sentences thatpiquethe reader’s interest, and pull the reader through the story.”Hooks throughout the work can be funny lines, punchy phrases, pithy comments, and intriguing remarks.Sometimes they are set off in their own paragraphs to signal a “dramatic pauseA regular stream of small hooks, adding details as you work up to larger reveals, keeps convincing readers that something interesting will happen if they keep reading.
The first line is anespecially importanthook; most sources say it needs to be your very best writing. It can’t justgrab attention and mustn’t mislead about the nature of the story. It has to be connected to the story line, set up the action to follow, and if possible pull double or triple duty, conveying information about the character, the plot, the setting, and the theme. It can reveal the essence of the “big” story question, focus, and themes via subtext. Itcan take advantage of the context established by the title.
There are both intellectual and emotional hooks Intellectual ones relate to the plot and interesting story questions; they bring out mystery.Emotional ones relate to the character’s arc and inner conflict; they deepen the reader’s connection to the character. Big turning points should draw on both.
One of the most intense kinds of “big question” hook, sometimes used in the climax, is having the protagonist face a dilemma, an impossible choice , a challenge to their core beliefs, where there is no clear answer, dire consequences for all the choices, and the character cannot avoid choosing.

Caveats and Mistakes

Repeatedly, my sources said not to include extensive backstory and infodumping – often not anywhere, but certainly not in the opening of the novel; one source suggested not until page 100. Instead, you sprinkle these things strategically throughout the story where they are relevant or intriguing; the small elements you do include in the opening must be truly essential to get across that early. You must include enough, though, to avoid confusion about what is happening.
  • starting too early (with too much daily routine) or too late (with the character in dire straits before the reader cares about them);
  • being unclear about which of several characters is the protagonist;
  • a protagonist who just reacts or avoids decisions;
  • an annoying voice, such as flowery prose, too much “telling” instead of “showing,” or a cheesy hook.
There are many clich é d openings and other mistakes that may lead to automatic rejection:
  • dream sequences;
  • the character waking up;
  • the character starting a normal day, getting ready for school or work, or moving from one place to another – unless their normal day is very different from what we would consider normal;
  • the character contemplating life, alone;
  • someone (possibly themselves with a mirror) describing or otherwise introducing the character, especially if they are too physically perfect;
  • the character’s most boring or most action-packed day ever;
  • too much descriptive detail, infodumping, or backstory;
  • premonitions or blatant foreshadowing;
  • a false beginning (bait-and-switch) such as killing off the initial viewpoint character or taking a tone not continued throughout the story;
  • a genre-specific cliche, such as:
    • crime: a hung-over sleuth
    • fantasy: a battle before we care about the characters, or a pastoral scene


A prologue is an initial short “chapter’ that isn’t about the main character, or isn’t about the main conflict. There are good examples of successful prologues, butmany readers will completely skip them. It may be that to use one successfully, you need to have the audience’s trust already, which means you may need to already have a significant track record. Also some genres like thrillers and fantasy may be more accepting of prologues than others, like literary fiction.
Prologues may be appropriate if they convey information necessary to understanding the future story, but which isn’t suited for a first chapter. They might involve a different time or place or point of view. Although killing off a viewpoint character in a prologue is often seen as a “bait and switch,” it might be appropriate if you’re showing a murder victim’s death.
In any case it needs to set the right reader expectations, voice, and writing style. It has to be interesting, but shouldn’t overpower the first chapter, which still needs its own hook.

Final Thoughts

I am grateful to Jessica Conoley , a professional developmental editor, for donating her time to improve the first draft of this article.
I found all this advice quite daunting, mitigated somewhat by the few places that said to expect to revise the beginning a lot to achieve the expected level of quality. Thus my plan is to write a credible first draft, based on the NaNoWriMo novelette, and return to it later.
Unless I fall into Writing Avoidance Mode again, and dive down the rabbit hole of further research about writing. I found all these interesting articles about themes…


In 2012 C.S. Lakin wrote a long sequence of blog posts; each gets across an idea that can be abstracted into a few sentences, with a lot about why, plus interesting examples. See her first-page checklist , and read the posts in publication order:

Main list:

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