First chapters. They introduce your fictive world to your readers. Your locations, your characters, the story’s tone, and the conflict or conflicts. Your first chapter essentially trains your readers how to read your story, how to navigate what comes next. It’s the set up for everything that follows. And as every writer is painfully aware, it’s the first chapter, the first few pages, the first couple paragraphs, which sell your book. If you don’t hook the reader in the first chapter, then you’ve likely lost them.
So what choices do you make for first chapter? What sort of lens do you work with? Do you start tight and zoom out to a wide view of your story? Do you start with a wide shot—an encompassing swath showing all of humanity? Or a line of dialogue between your main characters—tight, close? There’s no magic answer—each novel has a unique vision, developed independent of all others. And because of this, there is no one way to start all novels. So instead of listing off all the many options available to you, I will instead relate a story about my experience editing a first chapter of my novel based on reader feedback.
Not too long ago a trusted reader finished reading a draft of my novel. I value this person’s feedback. When we met to discuss the manuscript, she admitted she’s not a big novel reader anymore. She thinks much of the stuff aimed at a thirty-something women comes across as disingenuous, pandering, and worst of all, unbelievable. After she read my novel, she told me that she got my story, and that I presented it in a way that seemed real to her. Cloud nine. I write good women’s fiction! (Who knew?)
Then she went on to say that she didn’t really get into my story until after the first chapter. Whoops. Busted back down to earth. But I wasn’t surprised. I had always felt my first chapter didn’t really sing for its dinner as loudly as the rest of the novel, but I hoped nobody would notice. Thanks to this insightful critique I couldn’t ignore the obvious any more. The problem now was how to make it better. My trusted reader isn’t a writer, and had no specific ideas about what I could do to make the first chapter more immediate and engrossing. It would be up to me to figure it out.
I have a hard time returning to a piece of writing after I’m sure it’s finished. I mean, it’s done, what else can I do to it? But I knew I had to approach the first chapter in a new way. I started by reading it over, and making a few small changes. Nothing major, just getting my feet wet. Then I broke down the structure of it. It’s only 11 pages, but it needs to introduce the main character, show his roadblocks, let us know what he wants, and set him in motion.
Vital stats: Main character: Keith, a tavern manager from Somerville, Massachusetts. Check. His wife, Sarah, has left him. Righto. He needs to figure out why she disappeared and try to save his marriage. Okay. So he heads off to find her. Done. Simple enough, I guess. But if I don’t make the introduction to this story engaging and prove I can string sentences together in a way that compels readers to stay with me for the full 335 pages, then I’m screwed.
Let’s break it down. My first chapter has three parts:
Part 1: When the story opens Keith is already on the road, in an Arkansas motel room at night. He’s brought along his wedding video and watches the vows again, looking for clues about why Sarah left.
Part 2: Keith rolls out of his motel bed the next morning. He goes to the motel lobby to partake of the continental breakfast and strikes up a conversation with Heather, a young woman who is traveling with an abusive boyfriend. She will play a role in Keith’s journey: in chapter three he will help her escape the creepy dude and she’ll accompany him cross-country and help him find his wife.
Part 3: Flashback to five days earlier in Somerville and Keith coming home at midnight from a double shift, finding the apartment empty and all the lights burning. Sarah has left a note saying she’s sorry, she still loves him, but she has to leave. Cue anger, confusion, and desperation.
So, what to do? Scrap it and start over? Not yet. I felt I had all the pieces, but they just weren’t in the right order. I decided to switch parts 2 and 3. The flashback now happens after Keith watches the video and ends before he wakes up and gets coffee and meets Heather. Now it feels more like Keith has almost self-induced the flashback of finding Sarah’s note because he watched their wedding video just before bed. And in the morning when Keith walks to the lobby, he’s thinking of Sarah, feeling like he dreamt of her even though he can’t remember the dream. So there’s continuity there. More of a logical scene flow.
Why don’t I start the book with Keith finding the note, then moving the action forward from there? I did try it. But it seemed over-the-top. It’s like starting a horror movie with one of the main characters getting killed. I had to build up to it and surround it with scenes that aren’t at the same pitch to cushion a potentially histrionic gigglefest of a scene (“Sarah! Why did you leave me?? What have I done to make you curse me so??? What will become of me??!!?).
So, while considering how to revise your first chapter (come on, you know you want to!), ask the following questions to gauge how much work you need to do:
• Do the opening pages compel you to read on?
• Do you introduce the conflict(s) clearly?
• Does the first chapter introduce the structure of the novel?
• If you have multiple main characters, who should be introduced first?
• Do you start with a small, intimate moment? Does this fit your chapter, your novel?