I often receive emails from writers asking for advice on where to start their story. While every story is different, here are a seven elements that I feel belong in the first few chapters of a book:
Who the main character is and what they want most.
Readers want to know right away who the main character is and if what they want is something they can get behind. In Waterfall by Lisa T. Bergren, we learn in the first chapter that Gabi feels as though she's been dragged along on her parents' adventures her entire life. She's ready for her own adventure.
A glimpse of what their normal world looks like.
Often called a character's "homeworld," this is something to give the reader a place of reference. We need to see Harry Potter with the Dursley's before we can understand why he needs to be yanked out of there. We need to see Rapunzel cheerfully bored in her tower before we can root for her escape.
A lie they believe.
Giving your main character a lie to believe is an easy way to build a layer into them. In my book So Over It, Skylar believes she will never be able to change if she stays in town, that she has to leave Kansas City if she ever wants to grow.
The lie can also be something more external, like in Replication by Jill Williamson where Martyr believes the air outside will kill him.
A disturbance in their normal world.
The disturbance is something that knocks your main character off balance. They haven't agreed to go anywhere yet, but they're starting to feel uncomfortable where they are. They're wondering more and more if a change is necessary.
Some books have multiple disturbances. In Tangled, Flynn Rider appears and Rapunzel is able to take care of him herself. Also, her mother yells at her that she'll never be allowed to leave the tower. Until this moment, her mother has always danced around the subject, but now Rapunzel understands that she'll never get the permission she's been waiting for.
An introduction (of sorts) to all the major characters.
This one can be a bit tricky, especially if you have a villain who doesn't have stage time until later. But consider letting the reader know they exist early on. Like in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, we hear a lot about You-Know-Who long before we ever see him. And on the day Harry goes to Diagon Alley, he meets several characters who are important later.
Jane Austen was brilliant at this in her novels. In Pride and Prejudice, we hear a lot about Georgiana Darcy before we meet her. Same with Sense and Sensibility where we hear frequent references to Edward's older brother, and he becomes rather important later on.
An invitation to make a change.
This can be as obvious as owls delivering letter after letter in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone or as subtle as in The Truth About Forever by Sarah Dessen where Macy is watching the Wish Catering people and finds herself envious.
Making a choice to go.
The beginning of the book officially ends when the main character makes the choice to go on the journey, when they walk through a door of no return, when they do something that can't be undone.
Does the beginning of your novel have these? Which one(s) come most natural to you?