A long time ago, I read a pile of books about writing, and one of the things that the authors of these books harped on about the most was the importance of the first chapter. I was thinking today about what an earth I should write on my writing blog next. And then I realised that I had never written specifically about the first chapter in a novel.
The first chapter is so critical. It’s what a publisher will typically read first. It’s what a literary agent will typically read first. And most typical readers read from the first chapter onwards. If they don’t like the first chapter, they don’t read onwards.
So what should it be? And what should it look like?
It’s been a long time since novelists could get away with an opening sentence like: “It was too wet for a walk that day” (Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre). The opening sentence of your novel should introduce an action or some dialogue. Avoid passive statements or sentences that are merely a state of being. Depending on the genre, you could start with someone running or someone shouting or a very interesting piece of information in the form of dialogue – the kind of information that might come in handy throughout the rest of the plot.
The opening scene in your book should preferably introduce you main character immediately. It should cast him or her in some sort of dramatic light. It should give us a glimpse of what they are now, but also of what they will be later when the story is finished. Sometimes starting with a flashback is effective. Occasionally, beginning with a flash forward is even more effective. You show an exciting scene (maybe from the climax) at the start of your novel. In the next scene, you start your hero’s timeline and follow it back to that scene in the climax, some twenty chapters later. If that first scene is hooking enough, the reader may want to read on just to find out why that particular dramatic scene was happening and how it was going to end.
Freytag’s Pyramid is really the novelist’s gospel in many ways. If you haven’t heard of it, it would pay to look it up. It’s basically a simple picture of what a good plot looks like, with various parts of the journey labelled. One important part, very close to the beginning, is called the “inciting incident”. This incident kicks off the whole plot. It changes the hero’s life. It’s a sort of call to adventure. It’s where all the conflict begins. If your novel is going to be brief, it’s good to have the inciting incident in the opening chapter. If it’s not going to be brief, it’s still a pretty good idea. Then you can just stretch out the tension in the next any number of chapters to make the book exciting.
At the end of your first chapter, finish on a cliff hanger. This may be the most important cliff hanger in the book. It may be the very reason that a reader decides to keep going with your book.
Think about it: when you were a child, you probably made up stories with your friends. You would say: “This is so-and-so. They are a hairdresser. They do hairdos for mammoths. Their life was very normal, until one day… when this happened.”
“This” is the inciting incident. And that might be a very good point to finish off your first chapter on.
Imagine your friends on the school playground. “What happened? What happened?”
Well – read on to find out.