I think I’ve probably written about 18 book manuscripts over the years, and had eight of them published. That’s a lot of misses among those hits. And that’s one of the downsides of learning by doing; sometimes you do, and you learn that what you did doesn’t work. At least for someone else.
But one of the things I become more and more convinced of as I write novels and other book-length manuscripts is the importance of the first chapter. When you are trying to get started, you have to give yourself permission to write whatever just to get the ball rolling. But once I am near the end, more and more I find myself needing to go back and rewrite that first chapter.
Why? Well, as I tell my students, when Chekhov and Dostoyevsky were writing their masterpieces, there really wasn’t a lot of competition for people’s attention. Reading a novel was a luxury that most people couldn’t afford. Those who could afford the time and money for it didn’t have TV, radio, movies and video games competing for their attention. And that’s why you have books that seem to take a hundred pages to get started. I gave up on The Brothers Karamazov when in the fourth chapter, nothing had happened yet.
Today’s reader has the opposite situation. There is competition for attention everywhere. And so today’s novelist has to realize this and deal with it. Those who don’t won’t publish–unless they publish themselves. That’s the number one reason why the first chapter–nay, the first page–is so critical. From my perspective, here’s what a good first chapter needs to do:
1. Establish the setting. I am reading an otherwise pretty good book by my novelist friend David Mark Brown. It is set in Del Rio, Texas in 1918. Problem is, you get through about 50 pages before you are totally sure what era it is. There’s a typical western shootout between Mexicans and two Texas Rangers at the beginning, and it could have happened anytime from the 1830s up until the time it does happen. In fact, the assumption is that it is set around 1880. Then an automobile comes into the picture, which throws you. Establishing the setting helps the reader know not only where it is happening, but when. It’s pretty important.
2. Establish at least one major character. You might decide to start with your antagonist in the first chapter. Or you could start with the hero. In any case, we want to know more than just his name. Show us what his personality is like, what he looks like, and what his motivations are. We need to care–like, hate, something–about this character to entice us to continue.
3. Establish the conflict. Telling about a character is a great deal about motivation, and motivation is what leads to conflict–internal and external. Unless you have conflict, you don’t have a story.
4. Provide a hook. This should be the first thing included in chapter one, right up front. If it is going to take a while to establish the story or the character, give us a mystery or question or curiosity that will want us to hang in there until that story or character has a chance to be established. A good hook is worth its weight in gold, but it’s only temporary. If all you have is a hook and no story, your reader will give up eventually.
5. Establish the voice. This is probably the most important, and the reason why many readers hang in there in a story that otherwise might be mundane. Voice is the manner in which the story is told. Some critics say that voice is unique to each writer, and that when you “find your voice,” it is something that will always be the same if you are an honest writer. I want to take it one step further. I encourage my writing students to find their voice, yes, but learn to be versatile. Versatility is the bread-and-butter of the writing business. I can write news stories, feature stories and short stories. What I can’t write are poems (as my Rough Writers will attest). But I gain pleasure in getting inside the mind of the person telling the story and writing from their perspective, using language, logic and illustrations that they would use.
Why do I bring all this up? Because probably next week, I begin the arduous task of doing a rewrite on the beginning of my three-part Champion book series. Over the past five years, I have seen my main characters grow before my eyes. I have also seen the underlying themes develop in ways I couldn’t anticipate. Now that it’s finished, the rewrite begins with the most important part of the whole series: the first chapter.