How to Start a Book: Seven Questions to Ask about Your First Chapter

by Abigail K. Perry
published in Writing

The most important pages you need to prepare before you query a literary agent, besides the query letter, are the first pages of your book. But how do you start a book? Or, how do you know when the first chapter you’ve written will hook your reader? 

Sometimes in an attempt to seduce a literary agent, writers spend so much time mulling over their first chapter that they forget about the rest of the book. If you’ve ever heard the saying “your first chapter sells your book,” it’s true. Literary agents and readers won’t stick with a book unless the author tells an exceptional story—which means you must write and polish an amazing batch of first pages.

It also means that you need to satisfy those expectations throughout the entire book.  

Writing a book is tough! However, if you can learn how to write a notable first chapter, you can learn how to become a great writer. Period. 

The qualifications for a captivating first chapter carry over into every unit of the story. So let’s learn what grips a reader and keeps them reading. 

In this article, I’ll teach you seven key questions from author and literary agent Paula Munier’s insightful book on writing the beginning of your book, The Writer’s Guide to Beginnings

Additionally, I’ll provide an example of a strong first chapter and how it answers these questions. The book I’m going to use today is Take It Back by Kia Abdullah. 

Write a Great First Chapter, Then Write a Great Book

As a developmental editor, I’m always on the hunt for stories that grab my attention from the first pages of a book and keep my attention until the end. I even create bonus episodes on my podcast (Lit Match) to analyze said notable first chapters. 

One of the recent books I read, loved, and featured was Kia Abdullah’s Take It Back. Kia is a remarkable storyteller and kept me engaged (and guessing!) from page one. Her dark and complex story immediately grabbed my attention and is an exceptional example of storytelling from page one to the end.  

Let’s look at how Take It Back answers and measures up to the seven key questions Paula Munier urges writers to consider when writing and editing their first chapters. 

A kind warning: this book contains explicit language and sensitive material regarding sex, violence, and rape. 

7 Key Questions to Analyze a First Chapter (and How Take It Back Answers Them)

While plot and structure and character are vital ingredients in every first chapter, they’re not the only elements a writer needs to master.

When I look at a first chapter, I like to pull from the best resource I’ve found on writing beginnings: The Writer’s Guide to Beginnings by author and literary agent Paula Munier. This book is chock full of actionable and direct advice on writing the beginning of your book—and it’s also filled with examples. I recommend it to any writer struggling to write the beginning of their book, or really any of it.

These questions are:

  1. What kind of story is it?
  2. What is the story really about?
  3. Who is telling the story?
  4. Which character should they care about most?
  5. Where and when does the story take place?
  6. How should they feel about what’s happening?
  7. Why should they care what happens next?

If you’re familiar with Paula’s book, you probably understand these questions. If you’re not familiar, don’t worry, I’m going to explain each briefly before analyzing how Take It Back’s first chapter answers each question. 


Writers need to know the genre they’re writing—and the beginnings of their manuscript should read like that genre. Paula even indicates that the first words should “reinforce the genre identity set by the title, or you’ll lose the reader—and the sale.”

When a title indicates one genre and the pages counter this expectation, you’ll throw the reader off. This could lead to a loss in an agent’s request for more pages, a sale, and a reader. 

Of course, I’m sure there are the rare outliers who break the rules—but the reality of the publishing business is that if a story doesn’t fit neatly into a known category, the agent and author will have difficulty selling it. The publisher won’t know how to market it. And booksellers won’t know where to shelve it in their store.

Why? Because a story’s target readers are linked to genre, and if the genre isn’t clear, then how do those trying to sell and market the book know who to market it to?

Note: This is where comparable titles can play a huge role in confirming your genre. If you’re having trouble categorizing the genre of your story, I recommend you visit a bookstore. Look for comparable titles to your story and read the first pages. What does the genre read like? Do you give the same impression in your first pages?

If not, don’t panic. Do take some time to edit them.  

Take It Back is a legal thriller, and readers understand this from the first pages, which are riddled with psychological tension about a lawyer who distances herself from a romantic partner, is undergoing a midlife crisis, and who calls herself a cliche. The story is also full of dark suspense, and the first chapter ends with a traumatic confession of a victim who was raped. 

The central protagonist (the lawyer) of the story, Zara, believes this victim (named Jodie Wolfe) and agrees to defend her despite how difficult she knows this case will be.  


Paula shares that she can’t sell a story if she can’t pitch it in fifty words or less.  

This means that from the very beginning, the story needs to clearly define the protagonist, their story goal, and the conflicts they’re up against. Your story needs to indicate the big hook that makes this story worth a reader’s time. 

Here’s my go at Take It Back in thirty-nine words: 

Take It Back is a legal thriller that collides sex, race, and social justice, about a once high-profile lawyer who defends a teenager with facial deformities after she claims that four boys with proven alibis and from hard-working immigrant families raped her.    

Want to take plot and structure specifically for your first chapter a little further? To assess how the structure of a scene holds up in a story, I like to use the five commandments from Story Grid. You can read more about how I use the Story Grid scene analysis template in more articles on DIY MFA, or listen to how Take It Back’s main scene in the first chapter uses the five commandments on my podcast


If you want to write a book that hooks a literary agent and reader with the first chapter in a book, you need to have a clearly established POV (point of view) character. The POV character is often the protagonist, and readers need to know right away who is telling the story and the limitations of that point of view choice. 

There are three main types of POV: first person, third person limited, third person omniscient. There are other options like second person, too, but these are less common. 

Writers with a strong, established voice often choose first person. Regardless of what POV you choose, a strong voice is necessary for great books, and it’s not uncommon for an agent or editor to pass on a story that lacks a defining voice, or embrace one that is exceptional. 

Books may also include multiple POVs, and in these cases the POV will shift either in scenes or chapters. Writers should avoid head-hopping within a scene unless they’re writing omnisciently (and really, this is a narrator outside the characters, so it’s not exactly head-hopping). 

Regardless of an author’s choice, they should make the POV clear in the first chapter. This will set up expectations for the voice and POV for the rest of the book.

Take It Back is written in third person omniscient, even though it stays close to Zara, Jodie, and Amir for a large portion of the book.

From the first pages, readers can see that the narrator has an opinion and defined voice as they reveal the interaction between Zara and Luka. For instance lines like, “She’d probably break his heart, but what did he expect screwing a Muslim girl?” don’t sound exactly like Zara. 

Additionally, even though the story sticks close to Zara and her feelings and observations, there are subtle shifts like, “he blinked and tried to pinpoint the exact moment he lost her” that shift POV, taking an omniscient viewpoint.

Third person omniscient is a smart choice for this novel since it allows Kia Abdullah, the author, to develop an authorial voice. At the same time, it allows Kia to move between multiple major characters without giving too much away. 

Throughout the book, this choice allows Kia to explore different parts of the trial that might not be apparent to every character—which keeps the reader guessing: Who is telling the truth—Jodie or the boys? 

The reader won’t learn this answer until the last pages of the book.        


Plot is indispensable. Setting is important. But no story works without a memorable, sympathetic character—and all timeless stories will have a character that readers care deeply about. The reason readers keep reading a story is because they want to see if the protagonist makes it—and because of this, they follow the protagonist until the end. 

A chapter that hooks a reader, agent, and editor will make it clear why they should care about the protagonist from the first chapter. They should see how the protagonist is:

  1. Sympathetic
  2. Placed in a situation that demands a reader’s attention, and
  3. Forced to make tough decisions that come with stakes (see the five commandments for more on the crisis question) 

Take It Back opens with an intimate scene between Zara and Luka, establishing Zara as the central protagonist. 

The reader is concerned for her. Zara is ruthlessly hard on herself, calling herself a “f—g cliche” who has lost her dreams of changing the world and becoming extraordinary.

The first chapter then takes us deeper into Zara’s story: She abruptly gave up her high profile career as a lawyer to practice law at a sexual assault center. Her friend even indicates that Zara is having a midlife crisis.

Finally, when Zara meets Jodie Wolfe, she believes Jodie and agrees to defend her—a difficult and dangerous choice that comes with great risks but also the hope of gaining justice for Jodie.


Paula encourages writers to think of their first pages as the establishing shot in a film. Readers are far more likely to enjoy and understand a story—and therefore care about it—if they understand the story’s setting, the time, and the place from the beginning. 

A setting also establishes tone, which is important for your story’s genre. 

When a writer chooses a setting and grounds a reader in the setting, they should consider what makes a setting unique. Settings should do more than establish a place “just because,” they should play a role in shaping your story and plot. This way, whether or not a reader has experienced a setting, readers will see and care about why the setting impacts the plot and characters. 

Take It Back is set in East London. The first chapters also depict Zara’s place of employment, Artemis House on Whitechapel Road. The building is described as “cramped but comfortable,” and the “trust-fund kids in the modern block round the corner were long scared off by the social housing quota.” 

East London is further described as multicultural and insular—a description that naturally raises the stakes for characters like Zara, a Muslim lawyer, Jodie Wolfe, a teenager with facial deformities, and the four Muslim boys Jodie accuses of rape. 

Each of these characters and their greater communities will face a particularly difficult rape case as the case provokes some ugly and dangerous truths about people and society.   


At the heart of stories, there is emotion—readers want to feel something when they read. They want to experience a cathartic ending and enjoy the range of emotions that a story makes them feel while reading it. 

Paula says that “the sooner you can evoke emotion in your readers, the sooner you draw them into your story.” 

The first pages of a book need to make the reader feel something: a driving emotion that will carry over and build throughout the book. What is the emotion the writer wants to evoke in a book, and how does the story and its first pages successfully do this? 

As a reader of Take It Back, I’m intrigued about Zara and her personal life: her belief that she’s a cliche and her loss of hope, her midlife crisis, her distancing herself from people, and her abrupt decision to change jobs.  

Then throw in Jodie and the boys involved in the rape case. On its own, rape is a heavy topic and horrific. It also has this he said/she said quality to it. Plus, there’s the added factor of Jodie’s physical deformity and that the boys are Muslim. Because of this, I worry that there will be growing issues tied to race and physical differences.

For instance, jurors might not believe Jodie because of her facial deformities and the fact that the people closest to her don’t believe her. Additionally, because the boys are Muslim, there’s potential for Islamaphobia to grow, and the case could endanger the lives and well-being of the boys individually. Finally, there’s the added factor that the Muslim community will reject Zara, if they feel like she’s betraying her own race and culture.  

As a reader, I’m worried for all the characters involved—and, like Zara, I also want justice for the wronged party. But who is that? 

Who is lying, and who is telling the truth? 


Paula mentions how this question deals with three factors: (1) the action happening in the story’s opening, (2) the premise of the story, and (3) the big idea of the story itself. 

Sometimes all three factors are the same thing, sometimes they are different things. Here’s what each entails:

  1. The action happens as the story opens. The first pages and first chapter shouldn’t be filled with backstory or obsessive telling. Something interesting needs to happen (an inciting incident and turning point)—and that something should force the character to make a tough decision (a crisis question). There needs to be narrative thrust that makes a reader want to keep reading, meaning that some sort of action needs to happen that advances the plot. 
  2. The premise of the story. The premise is the starting point of the story, and it grounds the big ideas for what’s to come. The premise also highlights what’s compelling and where the story will go. 
  3. The big idea of the story. This is a story’s hook and what grabs an agent and sells a story, both to agents and to readers. The bigger the idea, the better your chance at selling your story, and the more likely you’ll be able to withstand the length of a novel. 

If you want readers to care about what happens next, look at your story opening. Is something happening in the first scene and chapter that forces a protagonist to make a crisis decision? How does this action and decision relate to the premise of the story and the big idea that makes your story stand out? 

Take It Back opens with tension between Zara and Luka, but the biggest action and decision that happens in the first chapter is when Jodie comes to Zara’s office. 

The stakes are high professionally, psychologically, and, if Zara takes Jodie’s case to court, there’s the potential for physical stakes. And all of these stakes grow with the prosecution and evidence, especially as we start to question who is telling the truth and who is lying. 

In the first chapter, Zara chooses to believe Jodie. That’s her decision, which is an action tied to the premise. It also clasps to the big idea, which is different from other court cases on the market because of the complications reguarding sex, disabilities, and race.

Master a First Chapter, Master a Book 

Whether you’re writing a legal thriller like Take It Back or another genre, the first chapter will make or break a book. They impact an agent’s decision to request more of a manuscript, and they are grounding blocks in a story’s potential and an author’s storytelling skills and writing talent.  

But writers shouldn’t stop with their first chapter. Once a first chapter establishes expectations for a story and the quality of writing and storytelling, they should carry these until the last page of their book. 

When a writer learns how to write a great first chapter, they learn how to become a better storyteller. Using writing tools and methodologies like Paula Munier’s first chapter questions and the five commandments I use to edit a scene’s structure are great ways to assess how your first chapter measures up—and if it stands a chance at hooking your reader.  

Personally, I loved Take It Back and think that Kia Abdullah is a remarkable storyteller and writer. If you write or enjoy legal thrillers or great examples of talented writing, follow her and read her book.  

And if you enjoyed this article and would like to learn more about how I use these questions to analyze first chapters, check out my podcast, Lit Match.

Happy writing!first chapter

Tell us in the comments: How does your first chapter measure up?

Abigail K. Perry is the host of the podcast Lit Match and a certified developmental editor who specializes in Upmarket/Commercial fiction, Women’s Fiction, Historical Fiction, MG/YA fiction, and YA fantasy. Abigail holds a B.S. in TV, Radio, and Film from Syracuse University and a Masters in Secondary Education from Endicott College. Abigail worked as an editorial intern and the Agency Relations Assistant for P.S. Literary Agency, is fluent in book and movie quotes, and loves a long walk with good company, which includes audiobooks and two- and four-legged loved ones and buddies.  You can reach her on her podcast or follow her on Twitter or Instagram

Enjoyed this article?