Sunday, May 2, 2010

The Importance of a Good First Chapter

Here's a post with solid advice from a NYC mystery editor.  (I admit to committing at least one of his crimes in my last mystery.  Easily fixed by...actually no, it's not easily fixed at all.)

First Chapter Boo-Boos

Does the buying public judge a book by its cover?  Sometimes.  Do they judge a book by its first chapter?  Yes, and so do editors.
I really can't overemphasize the importance of getting Chapter 1 right.  A good Chapter 1 makes the reader - whether agent, editor, or book-buyer - want to read more.  A poor Chapter 1 causes the door to slam shut.  And with Amazon allowing readers to read a book's first chapter via its "Look Inside the Book" feature, I would argue that a good first chapter is more important than ever.
(Interestingly, on a side note, the first chapter of non-fiction--usually the introductory chapter--is often written at the END of the writing process, because it's so difficult to get right.)
Herewith some things to watch for in Chapter 1, things NOT to do.
1. Don't get too ambitious.  Oh, the train wreck that is a first chapter that attempts to cram the whole book into its pages.  A first chapter should whet our appetite and make us want to keep reading.  It shouldn't, and mustn't, attempt to raise a series of questions and answer all of them before Chapter 2.
2. Don't make it the length of a novella.  Consciously or unconsciously, many readers see Chapter 1 as obligatory--they have to get it out of the way before the book kicks into gear.  Though it's the first chapter or a book, writers must see it as transitional.  The reader is transitioning from a previous book into a new book, and needs some time to ease into the new one.  There's always a bit of trepidation in starting a new book, so make it easy on readers and don't demand too much of them in the first chapter.
3. Don't burden it with backstory.  Chapter 1 is almost never (wait, scratch the "almost") the place to go into a character's backstory or history.  A first chapter with extensive backstory is a mark of an amateur.  Sure, juicy little tidbits can be dangled in front of the reader, as well as hints about the past, but please don't introduce your characters today and immediately go back to 1975 to explain their various psychological problems.
4. Don't introduce your entire cast.  Say you go to a party with a bunch of strangers, and you're introduced to ten people, one right after the next.  How many of those people's names do you remember?  Maybe one or two at most?  Your readers really don't want dozens of characters thrown at them in Chapter 1.  Making readers work so hard in Chapter 1 doesn't dispose them to wanting to continue your book, especially if they're slightly tired, which most people are, all the time.
5. Don't bore us with details and descriptions.  The first chapter should set the book's tone.  You're writing mystery and suspense, so your first chapter should have some mystery and suspense.  Lengthy descriptions are often a turn-off (they're one of the marks of those "literary novels" that end up remaindered as soon as they come off the printing press). And asking your readers to have to remember a series of small details that occurred in Chapter 1, when they really weren't into the book yet, isn't fair to them.
Now, for some things to DO.
1. Give us some action.  Something needs to HAPPEN in Chapter 1--something mysterious.  Maybe a mysterious phone call?  A breaking and entering?  A casually observed theft?  You don't need your car chase in Chapter 1, but please have the characters do something.
2. Raise some questions.  Create some cognitive dissonance.  Make the reader wonder what is going on, and don't offer any explanation.  It's that cognitive dissonance that makes the reader want to keep reading, to find out what happens next and how that cubic zirconium ended up where the diamond should have been.
3. Establish a significant character trait.  Not all your characters need to be quirky, but your protag should say or do something memorable in Chapter 1.  We meet enough milquetoast/boring people in life.  Readers are hungry for a character who makes an entrance and takes no prisoners.
4. Keep it tight.  Keep the cast of Chapter 1 to a maximum of three people.  Make ONE major thing happen to focus the reader's attention.  Don't make Chapter 1 a Rube Goldberg that makes the reader's head spin.
5. Show it to friends.  Print out Chapter 1 and show it to 10 friends.  Give them an anonymous ballet that asks a single question: "Based on what you've read, do you want to keep reading?"  If at least 7 of them don't say YES, kill it and start over from scratch.


James W. Lewis said...

Good info! Chapter 1 for my current manuscript was way too long (20 pages), so I made it tight and cut it down to 14 pages.

Robin O'Neill said...

Based on what Mr Anon Y. Mous editor said, I cut my chapter to 5 pages and 3 characters--2 live, 1 dead. Then my agent said he doesn't think it matters.

Writers are always caught in the middle.