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Your writing question answered

Posted February 05, 2014 in Writing tips opening chapter

Hi Sydney,

I've got a piece of writing but I get stuck again and again on the opening chapter – what to put in, what to leave out. What are the key components for an opening chapter, in your opinion?

Regards, Mike, McCrae


Hi Mike!

An opening chapter should be built around a conflicted relationship. It should begin with that conflicted relationship.

This might be a relationship between the protagonist and another person, or it might be a relationship with the protagonist and some aspect of themselves (say, between their sane self and their psychotic self, or the person they feel they ought to be and the person they are), or it might be a relationship between the protagonist and their environment.

This relationship should form an important part of the story. So, for example, it can’t be the protagonist and a character who never appears again in any way, shape or form.

First chapters tend to contain the protagonist and one other person. Sometimes it will be two other people. You want to keep the number low because you’re introducing the reader to the story and this protagonist and you don’t want to weigh them down with too much info.

Readers, usually unconsciously, assume that everyone who appears in the first chapter will be of importance in the whole novel or memoir. They’ll pay close attention for that reason. So if there are too many characters, they’ll feel confused, exhausted, and might stop reading.

A first chapter is an introduction to the protagonist. So, as with any introduction, it’s best to go easy. Focus on the conflict and how they struggle to deal with it.

What is that conflict? How does the other character oppose them (conflict)?

What is their relationship – brothers, husband and wife, boss and employee? What do these players look like?

Is there anything notable about them that would add texture to the characterisation? 

Then there’s the information on context: time, place, weather/season, and so on.

These are some of the basic components of a first chapter. The idea is to get the reader to connect with the protagonist emotionally.

So it’s a good idea to put the protagonist in a position of some vulnerability.

The degree of vulnerability will depend on the genre and the role of the protagonist.

Try not to start with fireworks. Like a murder scene, for example, or an explosion.

If a writer starts big, they’ve got nowhere to go but down. So start small, on a note of conflict or tension, and build upwards. That conflict or tension should relate in some way to the major plot problem they have to work on through the narrative.

If you’re writing a genre novel, then you have to put in some extra information that points to the genre. If it’s a murder mystery, usually there’s a dead body, or news about a dead body. If it’s a fantasy novel, there’ll be references to magical power. If it’s a category romance, the hero and heroine will meet. 

The most important thing to do is focus on a conflicted relationship that has a bearing on the larger narrative, and get the reader interested in these characters.


Do you have a writing problem? Send Sydney your question by emailing


Sydney Smith has been a writing mentor since 2007. She is the author of The Lost Woman, a memoir.

Sydney's next blog comes out 1 March.

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