Tuesday, December 14, 2010

On First Chapters...

I was critiquing a friend's opening chapter last night, and it occurred to me that in some weird shift of consciousness, I now have some very definite ideas about what needs to be in a first chapter. You need to learn who the protagonist is, and you need to begin hinting at what their journey is going to be. If I'm going to read on through an entire book, I need to know from the start whether the person taking me with them is someone I want to spend time with. I'd also like to know what they want, and perhaps begin to understand why they can't have it. So I took a look back at each of my novels, to see what I did in the first chapter of each, and whether it fits with my newfound revelations.

In Holding It Together, my oldest novel, the first chapter is an introduction to the characters. Nothing much happens, but because there are 5 main characters, they are each introduced, and the menacing environment they live in is hinted at. BUT... the real plot does not start until chapter 2. Probably a mistake. I should probably scrap the first chapter and begin in chapter 2. The different personalities will show themselves in the different ways they react to the events.

In Prayer and Prey I haven't written in chapters, so this doesn't exactly work so well. But, the first 10 pages or so introduce the three different POVs and sets each of them on their individual journey. I think Danny's section probably works better than the other two in that his motivation is bigger than that of the other two characters.

In Assignment 9 I introduce the protagonist and her dilemma right off the bat. Then I throw in a second character and suggest a relationship may develop. Then, right at the end of that first chapter, I introduce the idea that her family is messed up, which leads into the second story thread that makes up the book. I think this opening chapter achieves what I need it to.

In my newest WIP( provisionally called Chasing the Taillights), I am writing in dual POVs, so the first chapter only introduces one of the protagonists. They don't end up in the same space until around chapter 4. The book also opens with the inciting incident, the big plot point on which the entire book hangs. I'm not sure if this is the right place to have started, but when I tried writing from further back, it didn't work at all, so this starting place may have to be it. The chapter doesn't do everything I usually like a first chapter to do, but I think it works in a different way: because it leaves so many unanswered questions, you feel compelled to keep reading for the answers.

Do you have any thoughts on what makes a great opening chapter?


  1. Hrm...I want to say I disagree, but can't articulate why. I think it has to do with how much of the plot you're suggesting be touched on up front. I do think the first chapter should have conflict, as should any chapter, and it should introduce your characters. And it should definitely make the reader want to find out what's going to happen both short and long term to those characters.

    I think that much information may be asking too much of the reader up front. But...I have to ponder this further.

    Then again, it shouldn't be like an episode of Family Guy or The Simpsons. Where the story starts off in one place, and takes a bizarre, implausible tangent to tell the main plot and ends up someplace completely different.

    Gah...I should stop before I write a blog entry of my own in your comments.

  2. No, I disagree. You don't need to know who the protagonist is. I think you can do it drop by drop. At least that's the way I like it. Incidentally, most of the authors whose writing I like, such as Rushdie, Atwood and Zadie Smith occasionally introduce the main character(s) on page 30, or 40. Forget about the chapter. Set the tone from the beginning, engage the reader by including him or her in your narrative.

    Good post.

    Greetings from London.

  3. It probably actually depends on the book. Every story demands to be told in a different way. I tend to struggle with figuring out where to start most times, usually starting too early in the story.

    A scriptwriting teacher I had in college always said about scenes: get in late, and leave early. I try to remember this, but I don't think I do it enough....