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The secret to an unputdownable first chapter

from Shavonne Clarke, Lead Editor

Nothing is more powerful in fiction than unputdownable writing. And crafting a compelling first chapter is its own artform. Today I’ll be sharing the secret of how great writers do it.

Let’s start with what readers want—and even expect—to see in a first chapter.

What do readers expect from a first chapter?

Recently I wrote a post on what makes a great first line in a novel. In that post, I discussed the four elements consistent in almost every great first line: POV, setting, tension, and questions. Not every first line includes all of these, but all of them include at least one.

If you didn’t read that post, here’s a quick breakdown. (This will be relevant to our discussion of great first chapters, so I suggest you read this part anyway!)

Readers are helpless babes when they first enter your world—they don’t know what’s up or down, and they’re waiting for you, the writer, to tell them. There are four elements your readers are looking for right off the bat:

POV: This refers to your point of view. Readers want to know whose head we’re in, and what tense. First person? Third? Past? Present? Is the narrator limited or omniscient?

Setting: Readers are looking for grounding, even if it’s barebones. They want to know what kind of world this is, what its rules are, and how to picture it.

Tension: This is one everyone knows—does your novel suggest problems? If so, then your readers are likelier to read on to find out how those problems are resolved.

Questions: This is the one universal element you can’t go without. Every great first line in every novel raises questions in the reader’s mind that they can only have answered by reading on.

To cement this one in your mind, let’s look at a classic first line—Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

The questions I have in my head after reading this line are: Why did Buendía face a firing squad? How is it possible he’d never seen ice before? And, the biggest one: How did Buendía survive the firing squad?

All terrific questions. I’d read on to find out the answer to any one of them.

Each of these four elements are valuable to include in the first line, but if one of the four isn’t in your opening line, then it almost certainly needs to be established by the end of your first chapter.

Why is this?

Because readers expect it. Many readers don’t realize they have these expectations when they start reading, but they absolutely do. Their expectations about POV, setting, tension, and questions have been established over a lifetime of reading books and watching movies and absorbing stories in one way or another.

In Journal of a Novel, John Steinbeck’s companion journal to East of Eden (my favorite book!), he writes that “a chapter should be a perfect cell in the whole book and should almost be able to stand alone.”

When considering the idea of a “standalone” chapter, a helpful way of thinking of it is like an episode of a TV show. Certain episodes of already-great TV shows live rent-free in people’s minds, even after the rest of the show fades away: “The Constant” from Lost; “Ozymandias” from Breaking Bad; “The Rains of Castamere” (aka the Red Wedding) in Game of Thrones.

Each of these episodes, while tied to a larger story, stand alone in their potency and unforgettability. They each have an arc which includes a beginning, a middle, and an end—stories within a story.

Steinbeck’s advice feels particularly important when writing your first chapter. If your first chapter is written with enough standalone power, that will set an important baseline for the rest of your novel. After the first chapter, readers will expect each of your chapters to be equally dazzling, each of them satisfying in their own way. And all together, you will tell a better story.

Let’s break down exactly how to write a first chapter, starting with understanding what it is.

What constitutes a chapter, exactly?

A chapter, as Steinbeck calls it, is a “cell.” It can hold a little or a lot. It can contain one scene or many, or it could simply be the narrator speaking to readers. Some writers create long chapters, some short, and a few of them don’t even use chapters at all. (Cormac McCarthy is a great example of terrific storytelling without the use of chapters.)

But if you are writing in chapters, one thing is always true: every chapter must be unputdownable.

How is this achieved?

In most cases, through scenes. Scenes are the most common vehicle for telling a story because of their immersive power. Most readers want to escape into another world—your world—and one of the most effective ways to achieve this is through carnal detail.

Carnal detail refers to the invocation of the five senses: sight, smell, touch, taste, and sound. Most writers focus on sight, but the other senses carry equal potency, and the more of them you draw on, the more immersive potential your story will have.

(Note: Carnal details—like everything you include in your story—must have a purpose. Readers won’t care if a car is red unless that fact is somehow important to the plot or the story at large.)

Writing a scene is an art which merits its own post, but suffice it to say, scenes themselves can be self-encapsulating stories with a beginning, middle, and end. (See my earlier standalone TV-show examples.)

But a chapter doesn’t have to be in scene to be great. The first chapter of Steinbeck’s East of Eden, considered by some to be the greatest novel ever, features the narrator simply describing the Salinas Valley in California.

Here are the first two paragraphs:

THE SALINAS VALLEY is in Northern California. It is a long narrow swale between two ranges of mountains, and the Salinas River winds and twists up the center until it falls at last into Monterey Bay.

I remember my childhood names for grasses and secret flowers. I remember where a toad may live and what time the birds awaken in the summer—and what trees and seasons smelled like—how people looked and walked and smelled even. The memory of odors is very rich.

The power of this opening chapter lies in its narrator’s irresistible voice. Some writers achieve a such a level of craft that they could write a phonebook and keep readers gripped. In this novel’s first chapter, Steinbeck also uses imagery to great effect, as well as promising a grander story by the end. And, as per his own advice, his first chapter could be a standalone.

However you conceive of your first chapter, it should thoroughly ground readers in your world and be written with a clear, logical POV. And the ending should be dynamite.

On that note, let’s talk endings.

What makes a great chapter ending?

One of the keys to an unputdownable chapter is the ending. As with your first line, you should ensure that your first chapter ends with questions and tension that will prevent readers from putting your book down.

Remember this, if nothing else: Readers must never put your book down.

If you write and revise with this one commandment in mind, you’re practically guaranteed to write a better story. You’ll be capitalizing on one of the most powerful drivers of the human species: our curiosity. Much of where we’re at today—the heights we’ve achieved in so many disciplines and in civilization—is based in simple curiosity.

When you present a big enough problem or ask a compelling enough question, this is catnip for readers. Particularly when the only way to find out the resolution or answer is to turn the page.

Turn the page. Turn the page. Your readers must be unable to stop turning the page until there are no more pages to turn.

Every scene and every chapter ending should follow this rule. If, as you reread your story, you find yourself anything but delighted or gripped by the ending to one of your scenes or chapters, it probably needs revision.

What do readers in my genre want to see in a first chapter?

Finally, let’s break down some reader expectations in the first chapter of the most popular genres. These expectations can overlap with “tropes” or the “formula” of a genre, which is a huge subject for another post. While tropes are considered a bad word in creative writing classes, they’re unique and essential to each genre of fiction.

(Trust me: While working toward my MFA in fiction I learned to hate tropes. Then I started self-publishing and realized they’re inextricable from writing genre books to market.)

All that said, I’ll be touching on tropes quite a lot here.

Here’s one nearly universal truth among readers: the first chapter, unless it begins in medias res (which means starting in the middle of things; think of the movie Fight Club’s opening), should feature your main character’s regular, everyday life. It’s only through establishing what’s normal that readers can understand the baseline and know when your story is diverging from it.


Romance readers expect to be shown the everyday life of one or both of the main characters: either the female main character (FMC) or male main character (MMC). Some first chapters—those which feature alternating POVs—include both the FMC and MMC POVs in separate scenes.

You’ll noticed I said scenes. This is because most romance occurs in scene, though there are always outliers.

What romance readers don’t necessarily expect in chapter one is the “meet-cute.” This is a necessary part of the romance formula: it’s when the two main characters first meet. The first chapter can include the meet-cute, but in an average-length romance (50,000-80,000 words), that might be moving the story along too quickly. Generally the meet-cute occurs within the first few chapters.

In terms of POV, romance readers vary in their expectations, especially by subgenre. For example, historical romance readers are much more open and expecting of a third-person, past-tense narrator. Contemporary romance readers are more accepting of a first-person, present-tense narrator. That’s why it’s important to know exactly what your subgenre—it’ll determine what your readers expect from the POV established in chapter one.

The one narrative style you’ll basically never encounter in romance is omniscience. (This is the godlike narrator who can travel through time and into inanimate objects.) In the first chapter, almost all romance readers expect a narrator who’s limited to the minds of one or both of the main characters.


Almost universally, thriller readers expect the first chapter to bring us into the everyday world of our main character. Establishing this baseline of normality is especially important in a thriller, because our main character’s entire world will be thrown upside down. This genre also lends itself to scene.

Like romance, POV expectations can vary by subgenre—legal thrillers tend to feature third person more often than psychological thrillers. Because thrillers tend to be based around the main character getting to the Truth and the villain trying to kill them before they arrive at the Truth, the genre lends itself to limited narrators. That is, in many thrillers we only know as much as the main character knows.

A great example of how POV is affected by genre is psychological thrillers. This subgenre frequently features first-person POVs because psychological thrillers are about the fragmenting sanity of a struggling main character. As you can probably guess, this subgenre is especially devoted to a limited POV—that is, we’re limited to our main character’s head—over omniscience because we’re always so deeply inside their psyche.

Two of the most famous psychological thrillers are Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train, both of which utilize first-person limited POV to great effect.

Another expectation in the first chapter of a thriller is establishing—or at least suggesting—a threat to your main character. This genre is all about physical threat, and readers will be expecting at least some hint of what’s to come.

Science fiction

Science fiction often features worlds different from our own, which makes establishing the main character’s everyday life extra-important in chapter one. We may not even be on Earth, which means sci-fi writers have to carefully thread in worldbuilding to establish the rules of this possibly strange, alien world without overwhelming readers with information.

That said, the best science fiction isn’t too heavy-handed about worldbuilding. Dune, Fahrenheit 451—these novels pull you in with intrigue and complex characters as well as a world readers can be curious about. The story and characters must almost always come first, especially in this first chapter, to have a chance of capturing readers.

Like the other genres I’ve discussed, sci-fi readers expectations around POV vary based on subgenre. But as a whole, sci-fi is much more open-minded to omniscient narration. You can imagine which subgenres of sci-fi lend themselves to certain types of POV, though: for example, post-apocalyptic science fiction is dominated by first-person limited because the novels in that subgenre function a lot like thrillers.


Like science fiction, fantasy often brings us to new and strange lands that necessitate worldbuilding in order to establish the rules of the writer’s universe. Enough of this has to be achieved in chapter one to simultaneously ground readers without overwhelming them, while also intriguing them with the intricacies of this world or—more likely—the characters and story unfolding within it.

As with all the genres I’ve discussed, fantasy expectations vary hugely based on subgenre, from epic fantasy to urban fantasy. From the outset, readers will have certain expectations based on how you market your book. For instance, epic fantasy implies a grand journey or story, and readers will expect you to begin laying the groundwork for that from the start.

An example would be G.R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones, his first book in his epic Song of Ice and Fire series. This novel opens with a prologue featuring two watchmen who’ve gone beyond the wall, and we see them killed by mysterious, malevolent creatures. This primes readers for many things, but the biggest among them is the implicit promise that our main characters will have to contend with these magical creatures by the end of the series. It implies a huge, epic story.


If it isn’t clear by now, a significant aspect of writing a great first chapter is knowing your genre. If you’re writing literary fiction, many of the rules that apply to romance, thrillers, sci-fi, fantasy, and other genres simply don’t apply. But if you are writing genre fiction, reader expectations can sometimes be extremely specific. This is why it’s so valuable to study your genre by reading bestselling books in it.

In a nutshell: The fundamentals of fiction are crucial to a great first chapter, but so is knowing your genre. Go forth, read, read, read, and then write a brilliant chapter one.