A few weeks ago, Dawn asked in the comments:
I’d love to get your thoughts on what makes a good first chapter? What does it absolutely have to accomplish in order to set up the rest of the book?
Heh. Thanks for asking the easy questions, Dawn! 😛
I kid, I kid. IMO, the purpose of a first chapter can actually be boiled down to a couple of important points. In no particular order, they are;
1) Introduce the world to the readers.
Although there are some books with twists that are essentially: What, didn’t you know that this is all taking place in a computer game? — typically, you don’t want to do that to the reader. You want to tell them as quickly as possible the nature of the world they are in. Check out Ilona’s first paragraph of MAGIC BITES:
I sat at a table in my shadowy kitchen, staring down a bottle of Boone’s Farm Hard Lemonade, when a magic fluctuation hit. My wards shivered and died, leaving my home stripped of its defenses. The TV flared into life, unnaturally loud in the empty house.
I raised my eyebrow at the bottle and bet it that another urgent bulletin was on.
Right away, you know that this is an alternate world. Ilona has done it in the first lines of the book — that isn’t always necessary, but within a page or two, the reader should know where they are. They don’t have to know everything about that world, but the author needs to give them some way to sink in to the story rather than flailing about going WTF??, and introducing the world is a huge part of that.
(Now I am having flashbacks to the first time I read Gibson’s NEUROMANCER while I was on a vacation with my sister — I was lying on my hotel bed with a WTF expression on my face for about three chapters. Despite the WTF, Gibson did it right. I knew right away that the world was different, and that I’d have a lot to understand. Some worlds are just harder to get into than others, but the key is: At least give the reader enough to get into that world with the characters, even if it’s a struggle.)
In an ongoing series, this often also means letting the reader know What Has Gone On Before … which could honestly use it’s own blog post.
2) It needs to hook the reader, either by introducing character, conflict, or both.
I am not a “the first sentence has to blow me away or I’m putting the book back” reader. Sure, I want a book to be engaging from the very first line, but not every book is going to have The Best Opening Line Evah! Those first paragraphs and pages are more important, at least when I’m reading, and by the end of the first chapter, I should care enough about the story to go on to the next one.
Again, that doesn’t mean giving a reader everything in that first chapter. We don’t have to know who or why someone blew up the judge’s car…but the judge’s car should at least blow up. And we don’t have to know a character’s history, but we should have a taste of her personality. By the end of the first chapter, we should be able to give a sketchy physical description of the main character, along with an impression of their main traits.
…and that’s it. Two simple things, and yet it’s often the most difficult chapter to write. And basically, it boils down to giving. Give the reader a picture of the world. Give them someone to view it through. Give them a conflict whose outcome they’ll care about.
I still struggle with opening chapters. My favorite and my best is, IMO, from DEMON NIGHT (you can read it here) — a book I wrote several years ago. Of the novellas, it’s the one I just wrote for the BURNING UP anthology (thank God that one wasn’t a few years ago, but last month).
That doesn’t mean that the others have sucked or that they haven’t done their job, but that sometimes first chapters are just stronger.
So, first chapters — what are some of your favorites? What are some books that, by the end of the first chapter, you knew you wouldn’t be able to put it down?
And what do you think first chapters should do?