Every chapter of a novel is important but the first chapter has more work to do than any of the others. It has to do a host of things including introduce at least one character, hint at what sort of story you are telling and establish the setting. If your story isn’t taking place in the everyday world of today but in a different period of history, or a fantasy or future world, then just establishing the setting can be a major task.
The first chapter has to give the reader a lot of information, but in the right way. This is where the reader gets their first impressions of your story and your characters. Even more importantly if this is a debut novel, the reader is getting their first impressions of you as an author. Those first impressions really matter. This is when a reader decides whether or not you are a trustworthy guide to lead them on a journey through your story world.
Years ago I was at a writers group where someone read aloud the first chapter of the novel he was writing. During the discussion afterwards the author said something that I’ve always remembered. He said, “People have to keep reading until I choose to explain that in chapter five.” I was still very new to writing then but I instantly thought that those words were totally wrong.
People only have to keep reading a book in a few cases, such as where it’s required reading for school or college. The majority of readers are perfectly free to stop reading one book and choose another, or to do something else entirely. Teen readers in particular have lots of things competing for their attention. They are especially likely to abandon a book by a new author during the first chapter, because they’ve invested no time in the book, have no emotional link to the characters and have no previous experience to give them confidence in the author.
The first chapter has to introduce your story, it has to do it in a way that makes the reader want to keep reading and it has to build their trust in you as an author. Imagine the reader as a nervous passenger in your car. They’ve no experience of you as a driver, so they’re watching you suspiciously. If you start by driving through a red light they’re going to want you to stop the car and let them out. If you give them a smooth ride for a few minutes they’ll relax and start enjoying the journey.
This is why there is so much advice about how you shouldn’t start a book. There are certain things that are the writing equivalent of driving through a red light: instantly recognisable clichés that send alarm bells to the reader, starting with the weather, beginning with a scene that turns out to be a dream or having your character describe their appearance while looking in a mirror.
These appear at the top of every list of how not to start a book, and for good reasons. You can break any rule in writing if you do it well enough but you have to be an extremely good and original writer to carry off one of the major cliché beginnings without shaking the confidence of your reader.
The lists usually continue with other advice such as: don’t start with pure description, don’t start with a flashback and don’t start with your character alone in a room. Again there are good reasons behind all of these but they are about the potential difficulties of writing the scene. The reader, especially the teen reader, will get impatient with too much pure description. Flashbacks involve time jumps that can be confusing or irritating. A character alone in a room can be extremely boring.
If you believe one of these is the best way to start your story then you just have to dodge the potential problems that could annoy your reader and make it work. I started my debut novel, Earth Girl, with an angry girl alone in a room. It worked.
Janet Edwards’s author website: www.janetedwards.com
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