First Chapter Tips: Tension

When it comes to first chapters, there are some issues I see more often than others. Admittedly, I personally find writing my own first chapters super hard. I can’t include all the issues I’ve seen or this would be way too long. So I’m going to focus on tension and I’ll talk about other issues in other posts. Think of your first chapter as a reader’s gateway into your story. You need a strong, clear beginning that gives readers something they are dying to know more about. Tension will help keep your readers from getting bored. If done right, tension will keep them reading past your first chapter.

What do I mean by tension? I mean excitement, suspense, make us want to go right to chapter two to read to find out what happens after we finish chapter one. End with a good hook or something for your readers to want to know more about. I see a lot of authors trying to end with character reflection that winds up full of backstory and world building, or the chapter ends feeling like whatever happened at the start of the chapter has been resolved, or perhaps there isn’t much of an issue introduced at all. This doesn’t make me want to keep reading if I haven’t been sucked in. Instead of getting bogged down in characterization and backstory, I want to know the character’s current struggle and situation. I want to know what the issue presented means for them. What danger or possible change does it pose?

Yes, you want to set up your character and world, but you need to give readers something to sink their teeth into. You need tension to suck us in alongside the characters and world. We need something to follow into the next chapter and unless you have crazy compelling characters or worlds, they won’t be enough to do it. Don’t fill your first chapter up with too much characterization, backstory, and world building, then forget to add in any tension. An easy way to add tension is to introduce your inciting issue/incident/romantic hottie in the first chapter, which kind of goes along with starting in the right spot, a post for another day. Introducing the inciting incident of your plot will give readers something to latch on to and want to know more about. It gives them something to start following through the story right away. But be sure to follow that tension through to the end of the chapter. You don’t want to lose the tension right at the end so you can shove in a bunch of character reflection. Keep the tension going to entice readers on to the next chapter.

I’ve seen some good first chapters ending with the inciting incident. I’ve even read ones where chapter one leads up to the inciting incident and then ended with a hook. Then the the book gave the incident at the start of chapter two. But that incident was built up without throwing too much information and details at me. I got the feeling the character’s whole world was about to change. I read on to find out about that change knowing it would come right at the start of the next chapter. I wanted to know about it. I needed to know about it. Tension will keep readers going past the first chapter instead of putting the story down out of boredom.

Not sure if your first chapter has enough tension? Look at the last few paragraphs or page. Is there any reason for readers to want to continue on to chapter two? If your answer is no, add more tension. Give readers more of a prod to keep going. Give them something they will want to follow to the next chapter. Give them something to get excited about, or a reason to be on the edge of their seats.

Still not sure how to transition between chapter one and two? Grab some of your favorite books and read the end of the first chapters. Look to see how they made you want to keep reading. Looking at how other authors pulled off first chapter tension might give you some inspiration for your own.

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