Write a Great First Chapter
Sometimes three. Well, hell, the whole book has to be quite extraordinary, actually, but it really doesn’t matter how wonderful the rest of it is if the first chapter isn’t utterly captivating. Meaning fast-paced, unusual, arresting, and so readable that it goes down like a Jell-O shot. A boss of mine used to call this quality “liquid readability”. Almost all bestsellers have it. If you’re too much of a snob to read bestsellers, then forget about writing one. They’re on that list for a reason, and the reason is usually that they’re easy to read.
Think about Robert James Waller’s The Bridges of Madison County orMitch Albom’s Five People You Meet In Heaven. They’re short, almost greeting card-sized, and they’re written in simple, accessible language. This is not because either of these illustrious, prolific authors is incapable of writing complex prose. On the contrary, they were able to condense complex ideas into simplistic prose to an extraordinary degree. And this is what I’m suggesting that you do: Make your work accessible.
Not that you have to produce anything like the above two examples. Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander ( the first of a 21-book series about the British Royal Navy) was also a bestseller, and it is by no means simply written. But it is readable. That’s the key.
The first chapter also introduces the novel’s main character, and that character has to be someone the reader will want to live with for the next four or five hundred pages. He/she has to be so compelling, so interesting, so identifiable with the reader (or at least some aspect of the reader) that he/she/the editor won’t be able to put it down until there are no more pages to read, and then will wish for more. I’m tempted to go into some examples here, but the subject of characterization – even of a protagonist – is too big to cover under this topic. I’ll write another essay abput it, so that I can do it justice. One thing I must say, though: Don’t make your main character a perfect human being, even if that’s the way you want people to see you. Nobody likes a smartass.
You don’t have to bring up the main problem, or Big Antagonistic Force (BAF for short) in the first chapter, but you do have to lay down some clue about what the BAF is going to be, or at least a clue about what’s going to fight it.
This is where you hang your gun on the wall. I’m referring to the old adage (well, old for old writers, anyway) that says if you have the gunfighter hang his gun on the wall – meaning he’s planning to retire – you are then obligated at some point to have him take that same gun off the wall and use it. The first chapter is when you either present or hint at the BAF) and/or explain, usually offhandedly, something unusual about your main character that will eventually result in his/her interaction with the BAF.
You don’t want to bring up too much in the first chapter. Refrain from throwing in everything you know. If your protagonist is an alcoholic, having him take one drink is enough. This is especially true of sequels. You feel as if you have to get all the background information over with as quickly as possible… but you don’t. Think of the first chapter as a stand-alone piece, with maybe something at the end that makes the reader want to go on.
Big suggestion here: DON’T REVISE UNTIL YOU’VE FINISHED THE BOOK. It’s so easy to get hung up on revisions. Again, I’ll devote a whole entry to revision, since it’s such an important part of the process. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that novel writing is the art of revision. But revision can hang you up. For most of us, it’s easier than writing cold, and so we’re tempted to revise endlessly instead of moving forward. This is almost always a bad idea, but it is especially destructive with a first chapter, because that chapter will change drastically once you know what the ending is. There will be ideas that you’ll want to introduce, however vaguely, right at the beginning of the book… but you won’t know that until you’ve written the end.
I’ve rewritten the beginning of every book I’ve ever written at least five times, and sometimes as much as twenty. (By “beginning I mean the very beginning – the first two or three paragraphs).
So here I am telling you that the first chapter is the most important chapter of the novel, and also that you should forget about it until the whole first draft is done. Yes. Exactly. Then what do you write for the first chapter of the first draft?
I’m serious. Write any old crap, as long as it contains the material you’ve decided it needs to convey (We’re talking about an outline here, which I consider the most important tool in the writer’s possession). DO NOT get hung up. It takes a leap of faith to keep going onto chapters two, three, etc. when you know that Chapter One isn’t perfect, but you must take that leap, because THE BOOK MUST GET FINISHED. That’s the sine qua non. If you don’t finish, it doesn’t matter if the first chapter is any good or not, since it will never be read.
Maybe that’s why so many people begin novels they never finish. Because that way, no one will ever judge them.
But they’re not here in the privy with us. They’re hanging around at cocktail parties, drinking mojitos and talking about their fabulous works-in-progress.
Hermann Hesse said it first: Not for Everyone. He was talking about this life, the life of the artist. It’s more fun to go to cocktail parties and lie about all the great work you’re not doing. But then you don’t come here, to grunt and suffer alone. You stay with them, the talkers, the dilettantes, the pretenders. Not with us. We are the Morlocks of the imagination, creating worlds out of our sweat and our longing and the stench of the real world. This dunghole, sadly yet gloriously, is the place where our magic happens.
I know. Ewww. But I digress. Ahem.
The first chapter, yes. You want it to set the tone for the rest of the book. If you’re writing a horror novel, you don’t want the first chapter to be a lighthearted yukfest. On the other hand, you probably don’t want it to be totally scary, either. You lead into horror – or suspense, parnormal, romance, or any other type of story – gradually. You build, beginning at a low ebb. So yeah, the first chapter has to convey not horror (sticking with our example) but a sense that something amiss may be brewing. In other words, the tension of the story begins right at the first sentence, and your skill as a writer will determine how effectively this occurs.
That’s about all I can think of at the moment that won’t impinge on other topics. But here’s a word about this section in general: I don’t know if my ideas are going to get you published or not. They will, however, most likely improve your manuscript. If you disagree – maybe you don’t feel that accessibility is the key to mass appeal, for example -- great. Listen to your own song. What I’m writing down here are the things that have – and in many cases haven’t – worked for me. That’s all. Because there are no rules in fiction writing.
Well, one rule, but one one, only this: DO NOT BORE YOUR READER.