Where to start? The first chapter

Being in the early stages of a new novel, I’ve been thinking a lot about openings and first chapters. They are both essential to get right for different reasons: the opening (first couple of paragraphs) needs to immediately engage the reader, while the first chapter kicks off the story and generally provides the hook.

Most writers spend a phenomenal amount of time working on the opening, because this is the first thing anyone reads. For unpublished writers, it is particularly important, because agents and editors are unlikely to persevere beyond a mediocre opening by an unknown.

It’s hard to pinpoint a definitive formula, however. Just flicking through random novels on my bookshelf reveals several different ways to begin: mid-scene (action), description of setting/landscape, a narrator viewpoint on philosophy/life (especially in 1st person), or simply a narrative launch into the story itself.

About the only rule of the opening (assuming it’s engaging) is that it reflects the tone and style of the novel to come. But the thing with openings is that you can go back and sculpt them later. It’s probably quite rare that the actual first words penned remain as the opening.

First chapters, on the other hand, are a little more critical in the early stages of writing a novel–or so I think. And here it’s a matter of plot, rather than the actual words (which, again, can be perfected on editing or redrafting). The challenge is choosing the right place to start the story–which events will best launch the story you want to tell and engage the reader.

We know that the first chapter must leave the reader with questions they want to know the answer to. It could cover the inciting incident that creates the central conflict of the novel (as in a dead body being discovered in a crime story) . . . or it could merely contain a dramatic incident that underpins the main inciting incident. In the first case, it’s fairly cut and dried as to the content of chapter 1, but in the second there’s a lot more scope for variation.

And this is where the challenge lies, because once you’ve selected the opening scene and written it, it invariably leads to another scene, and another, and pretty soon you’re invested in a particular course of action as the route to setting up the main conflict.

All the other essential elements of the first chapter–depictions of character, establishment of setting, style and voice etc–need to be mastered as well, but these can be adapted to whatever events are happening. It’s the event selection that is critical to get right from the start to save a whole lot of rewriting.

(And while I’m talking about should be included in the first chapter, I might as well acknowledge what shouldn’t: backstory. If I’ve read it once, I’ve read it a thousand times. Since I have a tendency to forget this rule, I probably need to have it tattooed somewhere prominent…)

I’m banging on about all this because I’m currently trying to set up an ideological conflict, which could unfold in a variety of ways. Choosing the best path–and the most powerful inciting incident–has been consuming my thoughts for some weeks now. It’s so critical to lay a strong foundation before going too far.

I should mention that these first chapter considerations have assumed one is commencing with a scene containing action. Not all novels do, however, and in going through my bookshelves I pulled out a few much-loved fantasy novels that began with narrative histories of the main character (notably Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Dart, Robin Hobb’s Assassin’s Apprentice, and Melanie Rawn’s The Ruins of Ambrai). But I confess I love these novels despite their opening chapters. I have a strong preference for opening action.

A good example I came across today was Lynn Flewelling’s Luck in the Shadows. Following a short action-based prologue, it starts with the scene in which the two main characters meet–in a prison from which they escape together. There is zero backstory and not a lot of indication of where the story is headed, but the hook is the mysterious character of Seregil. I wanted to sit down then and there and read the whole book all over again! I reckon that’s the sign of a pretty good first chapter.

Any other good first chapter examples?

2 comments

  1. I’m a big believer in a good opening sentence. Let me give you some examples. I picked up the stack of books that happened to be on my floor some are library books, and some are newly ex-libris (because the library were getting rid of them at 10p a pop when I was there yesterday). All of these are written by authors I love. I own pretty much every book these authors have ever written (I figured 10p for a second copy was okay), because they grab hold of me, and keep me interested and amused.

    I don’t mean to disagree, but I actually think the first sentence is as (if not more) important than an opening chapter. Let me show you what I mean…

    Nora Roberts – ‘Sea Swept’ – Cameron Quinn wasn’t quite drunk.
    Elizabeth Moon – ‘Speed of Dark’ – ‘Questions, always questions.’
    Stephanie Laurens ‘The Edge of Desire’ – He should make her wait.
    Stephanie Laurens ‘The Ideal Bride’ – Wife, Wife, Wife Wife. Michael Anstruther-Wetherby swore beneath his breath.
    Kelley Armstrong ‘Exit Strategy’ – ‘I twisted by fork through the blueberry pie and wished it was apple’ (okay, cheated a little on that, it is the start of Chapter 1, but the book starts with a page and a half Prologue based on a different character)
    Terry Pratchett – ‘Thud!’ – Thud… That was the sound the heavy club made as it connected with the head.
    Julia Quinn – ‘The Viscount who loved me’ – Anthony Bridgerton had always known he would die young.

    I would suggest that first chapters – even if they’re prologues or set decades before the rest of the story should try and introduce the main character(s) by full name, and give you a concept of the setting. I know a lot of authors who’ve said they find it much easier to write the first chapter mid-way through the book, after you’re clearer on who the characters are, and what will happen to them.

    Good luck, hope yours comes together the way you want it to!

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  2. Hey Deb, I think you misunderstood me (or I wasn’t clear enough). I’m not for a second suggesting the opening sentence isn’t essential. Many people believe the opening par is the most important in the entire novel. I’m just saying you don’t need to worry about it so much in the first stage of writing. For me it’s more critical to get the opening events nailed, because they lead to everything else. And because I’m a linear writer, it seems weird to me to come back and retrofit the beginning of a novel – I would find it too hard to end in the correct place. (Although I daresay plenty of people do write this way.) However, one can tinker with the opening sentence and par for ever!!

    Thanks for sharing your favourite opening lines too. The Kelley Armstrong one is a ripper!

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