First chapters are important.
I have so many books on my TBR list and I need a way to choose which one to read next, so a few months ago I picked a handful of books and read the first chapter of all of them to see which one was the winner. Being a book editor, I’ve always known that first chapters are important, but it was during this process that I realised just how important. And so, #FirstChapterFriday was born.
Each book on my TBR list is competing for my attention and first chapters are their audition. The break that comes at the end of a chapter gives the reader a chance to reflect, and to make the decision to stop here or to read another chapter. However, the pressure put on the first chapter is even greater because there is much less to reflect on. Readers are not yet in love with your book. If at the end of the first chapter your reader makes the decision to close the book, it’s less likely that they’ll pick it up again.
Great first chapters are crucial.
I’ve written a post about first chapters before, but after four months of #FirstChapterFriday, I decided to reflect on what I’ve learned since.
1. Great first chapters have great first sentences
The first sentence isn’t do or die, but it can hook your reader immediately.
The first sentence of Coraline by Neil Gaiman intrigued me because it was written in a way that let me know it was plot-related. The story started straight away, which had me going because I can’t stand stories that start slow.
I also found that bad first sentences immediately put me off. First impressions give expectations, and if a writer can’t put together a gripping first sentence, then I have little hope for the writing and storytelling that will follow. It doesn’t mean the book will be terrible, but it will have started our relationship on the wrong foot. The first chapter now has to work harder to get my attention.
2. Great first chapters avoid info dumps
Something I raved about after reading the first chapter of The Sin Eater’s Daughter by Melinda Salisbury was how it only gave me information I needed to know to understand what was happening … to begin with. The first half was great because it described what the character was doing without giving me the whole who, what, when, where, why and how. However, it went downhill in the second half because it started to explain everything I didn’t need to know about the character’s situation and world. I like figuring things out from the context and I like when the story keeps moving along. All I want to be told is what I need to know to understand the scene I’m reading. Anything else can be explained as the story progresses.
Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard was much the same as the first half of The Sin Eater’s Daughter. I learnt about the world as the character progressed through the chapter. Even now I know almost nothing, but I know enough to understand what I read. The narrator never stopped moving to explain anything to me, she showed me her world by interacting with it.
3. Great chapters have a hook
Something has to happen. The context of the story has to change in some way. You must give your reader a reason to read chapter two.
Readers aren’t stupid; they can keep up with things changing in the first chapter. In The Forest of Hands & Teeth by Carrie Ryan, for example, the narrator’s life changes when a zombie bites her mother. I know this change will be irreversible and I know there are going to be immediate consequences. I have a reason to read chapter two because something happened that needs a resolution. Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo was the same. Something started and I wanted to know how it ended, so I was compelled to read chapter two.
More often than not, the chapters I read were standalone pieces of fiction that gave me no reason to keep reading, even if the chapter was enjoyable. I adored the first chapter of The Girl From the Well by Rin Chupeco and enjoyed Red Queen but the action that started in these first chapters were resolved by the end. There was no hook to keep me invested in the stories.
And Nightfall by Jake Halpern and Peter Kujawinski? What happened in that first chapter wasn’t even interesting. A girl went rock-climbing and found a statue.
Your first chapter must make a case for readers to keep reading. Raise questions. Introduce conflict and then leave it unresolved. Move the plot forward—it’s not too early! Make sure that chapter one ends in a different place to where it started. And, as always:
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