How To Start the First Chapter of Your Mystery
Writing a mystery is a long run to the finish. Your first chapter brings the reader into the world of the story and introduces your sleuth.
As a writer, you are in for a marathon of writing. You’ll introduce suspects, plant clues and red herrings and misdirect your sleuth and your reader. When a reader starts your mystery, they feel they have an unspoken agreement with you to give them a good puzzle and an intriguing and sympathetic sleuth.
Your job in the first chapter is to bring the reader into your story.
Basic Elements of The First Chapter of a Mystery
You define the course of the story in the opening sequences. This is your story’s first impression. The beginning starts the reader on a course to the conclusion and you want to plant the first seeds so they can grow as the story progresses.
- The first sentence. Hook the reader with a thought or action that pulls them into the story. The hook doesn’t have to be big. It doesn’t need to reveal the murder, it just needs to get the reader to keep going. While you write your first draft, don’t struggle too much for an epic memorable line, just get the reader into the story. You have the rest of your story and editing process to refine the sentence. For now, plunge into the story.
An opening line should have a distinctive voice, a point of view, a rudimentary plot and some hint of characterization. Jacob M. Appel
- The first paragraph. Introduce the setting and conflict. Ground the reader with the place and time of the story. Los Angeles today. Victorian New York. Rome under Claudius. Low Town in a land of sorcery.
- The first page. Introduce your sleuth and give him a reaction to the little conflict you just mentioned. Display one of her skills or shortcomings to give your reader a sense of who the sleuth is and how they act in the world.
- The first chapter. Introduce your sleuth by showing her in her everyday world. That doesn’t mean what they have for breakfast but how they work in their world. Who they see. Maybe there’s a sidekick or partner. How they respond to conflict and create a resolution. Get your reader acquainted with your sleuth, their personality, and the way they display their traits and respond to other people. You are planting the seed of how the sleuth will approach the murder and suspects later in the story.
- Tone. Make certain your tone matches the tone of your story. You are making an agreement with the reader that this is the tone they will find as they keep reading.
- Revisit the entire first chapter once you have reached The End. Work on the opening sentence. Make sure the minor conflict in the first chapter hints at the big mystery to come.
Your first requirement is to bring the reader into the story. Introduce the world, your sleuth and add a conflict that challenges your sleuth.
First Chapter Mistakes
Keep your first chapter lean and stay with the story. First-time novelists often tell too much in the first chapter. You have an entire novel to add details. Avoid these beginner mistakes to keep focused on your story moving forward.
- Starting too early. Your reader wants the story. Introduce your sleuth doing something. Give your reader action. Waking up, taking a shower, eating breakfast are not action moments. Leave them out. If your sleuth’s morning ritual is essential to the story, show it later.
- The whole life revealed. It’s called backstory. Your readers don’t need to know right away that major childhood trauma, or where your sleuth grew up. You can sprinkle those details later if they are necessary. Start adding backstory in the first part of Act 2. Now you want to pull your reader in.
- Vague opening details. You don’t need to be artsy. Leave the hinted language that tells about an orange on the table highlighting your descriptive genius. Get to the story.
- Long descriptions. Setting or your protagonist. Get the reader into the story before you add descriptive passages. Highlight a physical detail and leave it at that until later.
- The mirror. Your protagonist looks in the mirror and notices all his details. Don’t do it. The method is overused. Use other character reactions to give your reader a sense of your sleuth’s physical details. If your sleuth has a disability, show your reader in the context of the story.
- Gratuitous sex scene. Gratuitous sex is not a hook. If it doesn’t move the story forward, your reader will be disappointed.
Keep your first chapter focus on the story and you will avoid these mistakes.
Focus on the Story
Your best guideline is your story. If you’ve done your planning, you know who is in the first chapter, what actions occur, and what the (minor) conflict is.
You have an entire novel to spread out with details, narrative description, and backstory. The first chapter is your reader’s first impression of your mystery. Make a good first impression and then work hard to keep them reading.