As I begin to sink up to my neck in editing what will be my debut novel, two things are becoming abundantly clear. Firstly, the process of whipping my manuscript into the sort of shape that won’t have me cringing in embarrassment at my ineptitude as a writer will be a painful one, and will doubtless see me committed to a psychiatric ward before I’m done. Secondly, no part of my story will test my patience or my sanity nearly so much as the opening chapter.
Is there anything quite so terrifying to an author than writing Chapter One of a novel? After all, these few pages have the power to make or break the entire book. They are what agents and publishers will use to judge whether your work is worthy of further consideration, or merely fit for the shredder. They’re also what potential readers will peruse to help them decide whether to spend their hard-earned cash on your book. It’s little wonder then that the prospect of editing my first chapter has me tearing out my hair. Admittedly, I do have a lot of hair, but still . . . I’d rather it didn’t start falling out just yet.
All I have to go on is my own experience as a reader, which, taking into account the sheer number of books I’ve consumed over the years, is fairly considerable. So, what is it about some first chapters that has me frantically turning the page to Chapter Two, while others force me to give up without even reaching the end? For me, this can be summed up in three key points:
- Writing Style. I have to like the way the author writes. I once heard it said that a writer’s style should be like glass, so clear that you barely even notice it, and this sees to me to be true. The last thing I want is to be stumbling over complicated words and long, rambling sentences. I want the prose to wash over and around me, sweeping me along to wherever the author chooses to take me.
- Characters. Whether the narrative is written in the third or first person, I need protagonists who not only leap off the page, but who grab me by the shoulders, compel me to look them in the eye, and make me listen while they tell me their story. They have to be real and flawed and deeply human. They don’t necessarily have to be likeable. I simply have to care enough about what happens to them that it captures my interest and my emotions.
- Plot. I know many readers like a first chapter to open with action, a fight scene or a quarrel, but I generally prefer to get to know the characters a little beforehand. That isn’t to say I like slow openings either. Nothing is more likely to turn me off from a book than long-winded descriptions of a setting or the weather. The kind of opening that works best for me is one that introduces the protagonists in an interesting way, while hinting at the conflict to come.
Okay, so now I’ve set down what I look for in a first chapter, it’s time to apply it to my own manuscript. Fellow readers, if there’s anything you’d like to add, any elements that you feel make a great Chapter One, I’d love to hear your thoughts!