Written by JJ Barnes
A lot goes into writing a good story, and it takes a lot of chapters to complete one. But your first job is to write Chapter One, and that is where a lot of people freeze. Not because you don’t know what to do with the rest of your story, but because you don’t know how to start it.
I’ll be talking through things you need to include to write Chapter One of your book, and hopefully leaving you feeling empowered to make that step. The world needs more stories, let’s make yours one of them.
Who Is Your Protagonist?
Your Protagonist is your main character. That’s the person who’s shoulders you will be riding on for the majority of the story. So you probably have the clearest idea of who this person is in your head.
Your story is following your Protagonist on their journey to try and get what they want. So, to make that make sense, you need to demonstrate what is missing in their lives. As you introduce your main character, let your readers discover what in their lives is frustrating them. Something is wrong enough that they are then motivated to change it.
How To Introduce Your Protagonist In Chapter One
To introduce them, don’t start with them waking up in bed unless you absolutely have to. It’s been done so many times, it’s boring, and it tells you very little about who they are.
Start with them in their lives, living normally. Introduce them in their natural environment so you can tell the audience what about that environment is unsatisfactory.
You can introduce any side characters, show what they mean to your Protagonist by how they interact with one another. Going straight in with who your Protagonist is and the life they’re living makes them feel real. That will help your audience understand who they’re going to be following.
Who Is Your Antagonist?
Your Antagonist is probably the “bad guy” of your story. It actually means the opponent set against the Protagonist, so they’re not necessarily a bad person. The point of the Antagonist is that what they want is in direct conflict with what the Protagonist wants.
Whatever it is your Protagonist wants, your Antagonist wants to stop them having it. This could be because your Antagonist wants the exact same thing and they can’t both have it. Or your Protagonist wants something that will block your Antagonist from getting what they want.
For instance, imagine your Protagonist is a teenager who wants to go to the Prom with the captain of the football team. In this story, your Antagonist will ALSO want to go to the Prom with the same person. They can’t both have what they want, someone has to lose.
Alternatively, your Protagonist is a teenager who just wants to go to the Prom. In this case, your Antagonist wants to stop them for their own reasons. They could be an over protective parent who wants them to stay home, or a teacher who wants to put them in a detention. But your Protagonist can’t both GO and NOT GO. Someone has to lose.
How To Introduce Your Antagonist In Chapter One
In the scope of your story, your Antagonist is as important as your Protagonist. You need your Protagonist to tell your story about, and you need your Antagonist to make it entertaining.
You can introduce your Antagonist first, show what they want. This works well if they’re actually a bad person, because then when you meet your Protagonist it’s a relief. It’s likely that what the bad person wants is what motivates your Protagonist, because they need stopping.
For instance, in Lilly Prospero And The Mermaid’s Curse, first I introduced The Harvester. He is dragging a mermaid from the ocean, ready to carve her up and sell her body parts on the magical black market. You know what he wants, because he’s doing it. Then, when you cut to Lilly and Saffron, you know that they will become motivated to stop him and that’s the story you’ll be following.
Alternatively, introduce your Protagonist first, then when you show what’s frustrating about their lives, you can incorporate the Antagonist into it. For instance, when you first meet Harry Potter his life is unsatisfactory. He’s living in the cupboard under the stairs, and he has a miserable existence. There are multiple Antagonists, but looking at The Dursleys and Voldemort. Without Voldemort, he wouldn’t be there in the first place.
Without The Dursleys treating him so terribly, his life would be happier. Harry wanting to change his life is directly related to the existing way his Antagonists have impacted his life.
What Is The Inciting Incident?
You have no real story until your Protagonist and your Antagonist are set against one another. Your Protagonist is just living, and not actively in pursuit of anything. The Inciting Incident is what puts your story into motion. It establishes the conflict.
Without conflict your story is boring. Your Protagonist could just go and get what they want without any challenge or struggle. There’s no point following that. Without conflict your scenes will be slow and your story will be dull. The Inciting Incident is when you establish the story conflict and your audience connects with what will entertain them in this story.
Your Inciting Incident is when your Protagonist moves from passive to active. Either they realise what they want and go after it, or they realise what the Antagonist is doing and want to stop them. But that moment, something sparks them into action and you need to show it happen.
Where Does The Inciting Incident Go In Chapter One?
The beginning of Chapter One can be them living their lives in passive mode. You use that to tell your audience who they are, who the people in their lives are, and demonstrate what they’re frustrated by before they become motivated to change it.
However, you don’t want to leave them passive for too long because then you’re just delaying the start of your story. Your story is why your readers are there. Somebody just living isn’t interesting, it’s not a story, you need to set them in motion.
There’s no limit to how early you put your Inciting Incident, because you can get to know who they are whilst they’re active. However, my personal taste would be to spend a little time with them first. So, ideally, your Inciting Incident should come towards the end of Chapter One. You should spend a little time getting to know them and the Antagonist, so you understand why their motivation matters. Then, when you’re established, set them at odds and your story is moving.
The world your story is set in needs to be clear to your readers in Chapter One. If it’s in our world, tell your readers specifically where your character is. What country is your story set in, what work or home environment are they in, are any laws or rules going to impact them?
If your story is an urban fantasy, make sure it’s clear that there is the potential for magic in that world. Leaving it too late feels your genre changes suddenly. If your readers don’t realise they’re reading a book with magic, they could be booted out when it’s introduced. Make it clear from Chapter One.
The world building in a High Fantasy Story will likely take longer than for any others. Whether your story is set in space or some fantasy world, there is a rich history and lore that needs exploring. For Chapter One, don’t overwhelm with world building because it will feel tedious, and establishing characters is more important.
Chapter One needs to tell your readers what kind of world they’re in, and it needs to focus on how it affects your Protagonist and Antagonist. You can build the world around them by how they move through it. Your audience can get a handle on what sort of environment it is by your characters homes, work, transport, and social lives. The history and lore should be dripped in through those interactions, rather than info dumped into Chapter One.
Setting Up Your Story In Chapter One
The purpose of Chapter One is to hook your reader, draw them into reading on, and to set up the rest of your story.
Make sure that by the end of Chapter One, your audience knows:
1) Who the Protagonist is and what they want – it tells your audience what story they’ll be following and why they’re bothering to read it.
2) Who the Antagonist is and what they want – it tells your audience why the Protagonist’s journey matters and what the conflict of the story will be.
3) Where the story is taking place – without any understanding of the character’s environment, it’ll feel like they’re in a plain white box. You need to set the stage so they’re humans not puppets.
If you establish those points in Chapter One, your audience will understand why they’re there and what they’re supposed to care about.
It’s incredibly normal to find staring at a blank page intimidating. Starting Chapter One means you’re actually taking the step to write this story you’ve been dreaming of writing. If you’re actually writing it, you could actually fail. Until you try, you’ve got no risk.
But do it. Try it. Write it. The world needs stories, and your voice matters. Nobody in the world can tell your story like you can, and that’s a special and unique power to wield. Your thoughts, your life, your history and beliefs all matter and stories are how you can communicate those things to the world.
If you write Chapter One, you’re then on your way. You’re a writer. Until you’ve written you’re just an aspiring writer, so make that transition.
When you get to the end of your story, you’ll probably want to change somethings about Chapter One and that’s absolutely fine. We all do that. Read about How To Edit Your Book and feel reassured that editing is a normal and essential part of writing. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be written. Until it’s written you can’t edit it and make it perfect.
Be brave. Write your story. Drop me a comment with what you’re working on. I’d love to hear from you.
More From JJ Barnes:
I am an author, filmmaker, artist and youtuber, and I am the creator and editor of The Table Read.
You can find links to all my work and social media on my website: www.jjbarnes.co.uk
Buy my books: www.sirenstories.co.uk/books
Follow me on Twitter: @JudieannRose