I’m reading a great book right now. It’s called Garlic and Sapphires: the Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise. It is a wonderful example of how to write a memoir, so if you are thinking of penning one yourself, I recommend this book as an example of one done really well.
But onto the reason for this post. Garlic and Sapphires has one of the best first chapters I’ve read in a long time. From the moment I turned the page to start chapter 2, I knew I was going to love this book.
So let’s talk about first chapters. Why are they such a big deal?
They are a big deal because people have the attention span of gnats. People are impatient and don’t give things much of a chance. Your first chapter has to grip a reader or you risk your book being passed up in favor of something more dynamic.
I know, I know, by the third chapter you have really hit your stride. Haven’t we all? But I have to tell you the truth, if you didn’t hit your stride in chapter one, then by chapter three the only person still reading is your mother.
So some things to think about:
Books don’t always start where you think they do. A great book pulls you into a world that existed before you started reading and will go one long after you turn the last page. So stop worrying about the beginning of your story and start thinking about a part of the story that’s exciting, a place where readers would like to start. It’s about capturing attention. You can fill in details on the back story later (if you need to) but make the first page gripping.
Set the story. Lots of people talk about being very definitive about the time and place in which the book is occurring. I agree with this and I don’t. I like to get to the end of a first chapter and have enough questions to compel me to turn that next page. I read something recently that says if the book is taking place in Vancouver, Canada tell us that in the first chapter. Hogwash, I say. You might want to do that, but you might not. If the book is set in space and as a reader I didn’t figure that out in the first chapter, then unless there is a really good reason (like the first-person narrator doesn’t realize she’s in space) then I think you’ve failed to properly set the story. On the flip side, none of the books I love start with “It was June 12, 1974, a sunny day in Vancouver, Canada.” You can start that way, I guess, but I’m hardly gripped. Set the story, but be careful of taking this direction too literally.
Get rid of junk. Sorry, but sometimes your first draft of your first chapter is just junk. Sometimes the last draft of your first chapter is junk. When I was in school, whenever I worked on a paper the very last thing I wrote was the introduction. I could never start with an introduction, I always had to back into it. I needed to know what I said before I could introduce what I was going to say. I read advice once that suggested that once you have written your entire story, throw out your first chapter. Don’t even ready it, just delete it and write a new one.
In addition to Garlic and Sapphires, two more books with great first chapters spring to mind:
Gone Tomorrow by Lee Child
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Assignment: Check out the first chapters of these three books and then look at the first chapters of your favorite books. Think about them critically as you read. Don’t read to get sucked in, read to understand the author’s technique. Then come back and tell us about another great first chapter.