1st Chapter

TomTB

Super Moderator
Staff member
#1
A few nights ago I was sat reading the 1st chapters of a load of books sat in my kindle, with the aim of finding something that piqued my interest.

Well .. this got me thinking - I have a question for all the BFBF authors. How important is the beginning of your book to you? Do you go to extra effort to make sure the 1st chapter of your book is 'special', to help hook readers like me? Do you think the start of the book has to stand out, or do you not think it really matters - that it's more important that the overall (whole book) reading experience takes precedent?
 

Tanniel

Journeyed there and back again
#2
I imagine the answer you'll get from everyone is that we place immense importance on the 1st chapter (but chime in if I am wrong). Maybe only the very last chapter(s) has same or more importance. If you hook a reader far enough to make them open your book and start reading, you want to do everything in your power to keep them going. A lot of people might put a book down after a few pages, but if you get them past the 1st chapter, there's a high chance they'll continue through it (due to increased investment into the story - at least such is my theory).

If anyone has checked out the 1st chapter of my book, it might not immediately seem like I put any thought to this - the start and its pacing is very slow, and it takes a while before any characters actually appear. But I did agonise a lot about the 1st chapter, and in fact, it was this agonising that prompted me to write my whole book. I've had the thought about writing my story for years (and even tried a couple of times), and one bored holiday at my parents, I thought about how I would even start the book. Introducing setting, characters, and plot all in one chapter. I gave it a try, just intending to write the initial paragraphs, but once they were done, I felt motivated enough to continue, and before I knew it, I was writing the full story. As for the first chapter, I settled on having a geographical description imagined like a bird flying over the landscape, but tying it to a group of travellers moving through the land to make it a little more personal and not too abstract for the reader. Once this description was done, I had two characters engage in conversation and immediately introduced the threat of looming war just to inform the reader that this story will have action at some point - just got to wait for it.

It may for many readers have been a poor choice on my part to start the first paragraphs with such slow pacing as I did; I know many want to be hooked one way or the other almost immediately. But since the pacing of my stories are generally slow, I figured it was best to warn the reader early on. Anybody put off by my slow intro would not enjoy my book anyway.
 

jo zebedee

Journeyed there and back again
#3
It's essential, especially for debut writers. If you want an agent, you need to hook enough within about 250 words for them to read on, for instance.

But the question is - what is a hook? Is it something happening, something big? And, no, it doesn't have to be, it just has to be the raising of questions. In Inish Carraig (which hooks quicker than Abendau, according to readers) the hook is the line about cat stew. Why is a modern boy in a modern city living in a house with holes in the roof and thinking about turning the neighbourhood cat into stew? That's the hook. It can be that simple...

But, yep, lose people in the first chapter, and you'll always struggle.
 

Bierschneeman

Journeyed there and back again
#5
I'm not a writer (least not professionally) buy here are my thoughts.

"In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I have been turning over in my mind ever since. 'When ever you feel like criticizing someone, remember all the people in the world haven't had the advantages you had.'"

Often the first paragraph is the most memorable in the best of books so much so that I might reread them. Some stick in my head forever and I can recite them readily. I might forget the end or the middle but the words in the beginning stick with me.( see what I did there)

Buuut. It's rare to find books with such amazing beginnings as that so I don't hold it against the author if their opening sucks. What if the opening is beautiful and wonderful but the book reeks of garbage?? .

I will say If I'm not impressed by page fifty I will never finish. Or if I'm wowed by the opening but unimpressed by page 100 I will also never finish it.

Ohh and in case you are wondering on that quote, it's not just there as a measuring stick of great openers, nor just an example of how I never forget the best openers. It is a philosophy for how I look at openers, to me that paragraph tells me to give an author time to show me that despite a lousy opener it could still be great.
 

Matticus Primal

Journeyed there and back again
#6
Ooh, the dreaded opening chapter. In screenwriting there's an adage about open with a punch and end with a flurry, which means you want your opening image/ scene to really pop and draw the viewer in. Same is true for the novel, but there's a lot more that goes into it than the screenplay. A short checklist of stuff that has to come through in your first chapter:

Setting - pretty self explanatory, but needs to be balanced with the plot/ characters as well
Time Period - Is this medieval, ancient, modern, future?
Genre - Upon finishing the first chapter the audience should be pretty sure what kind of book this is going to be.
Intro to World Logic/ Conceit - Doesn't have to be in depth, but at least a demonstration of what makes your world different (in case of sci-fi/ fantasy) or adhere to reality
Hook - As Jo said; why is the reader going to want to keep going? What makes your book special and worthy of the audience's investment?
Intro to at least one main character - There can be other protags/ main character, but you need to introduce someone to intrigue the audience (could be villain actually). But you can't just describe the world/ setting for an entire chapter. I mean, you could, but that would be more of a treatise rather than a novel.
Interest the audience in main character - This character has to do something (Save the Cat in screenwriting) to endear him/her to the audience.
Intro the main plotline - It doesn't have to be "drop this ring into a volcano to destroy Sauron," but the ring at least needs to be introduced.

And, you know, also be well-written, exciting and all that. So yeah, a lot of thought goes into the first chapter. Or at least it should.
 

Silvion Night

Sir Readalot
Staff member
#7
You can even take @Bierschneeman's argument a bit further. Some authors manage to hook their audience with just one sentence. Consider the below examples.

"The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed" (The Gunslinger, Dark Tower 1, by Stephen King)

"In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit" (The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien)

"In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" (Genesis 1:1, the Bible)

"It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking 13" (1984, George Orwell)

In my opinion these all have the same effect: the sentences hook you and make you want to read more. Very deftly done if you ask me.
 

Diziet Sma

Hired Nicomo Cosca, famed soldier of fortune
#8
. In my opinion these all have the same effect: the sentences hook you and make you want to read more. Very deftly done if you ask me.
I have read Chronicle of a Death Foretold by García Márquez about three times, and each the very first paragraph grabs me completely. I know Santiago is going to be killed that day, somehow I expect differently...

"On the day they were going to kill him, Santiago Nasar got up at five-thirty in the morning to wait for the boat the bishop was coming on. He'd dreamed he was going through a grove of timber trees where a gentle drizzle was falling, and for an instant he was happy in his dream."
 

Matticus Primal

Journeyed there and back again
#9
I have read Chronicle of a Death Foretold by García Márquez about three times, and each the very first paragraph grabs me completely. I know Santiago is going to be killed that day, somehow I expect differently...

"On the day they were going to kill him, Santiago Nasar got up at five-thirty in the morning to wait for the boat the bishop was coming on. He'd dreamed he was going through a grove of timber trees where a gentle drizzle was falling, and for an instant he was happy in his dream."
You know, I've never read that book, but even I know that opening.

"The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed" (The Gunslinger, Dark Tower 1, by Stephen King)
King has acknowledged this is his best opening ever, and I have to agree with him. I honestly think that was probably his best book in terms of writing style, and think a lot of that has to do with him being significantly more succinct than in his later novels, as that opening line demonstrates.
 

Bierschneeman

Journeyed there and back again
#10
Ooh, the dreaded opening chapter. In screenwriting there's an adage about open with a punch and end with a flurry, which means you want your opening image/ scene to really pop and draw the viewer in. Same is true for the novel, but there's a lot more that goes into it than the screenplay. A short checklist of stuff that has to come through in your first chapter:

Setting - pretty self explanatory, but needs to be balanced with the plot/ characters as well
Time Period - Is this medieval, ancient, modern, future?
Genre - Upon finishing the first chapter the audience should be pretty sure what kind of book this is going to be.
Intro to World Logic/ Conceit - Doesn't have to be in depth, but at least a demonstration of what makes your world different (in case of sci-fi/ fantasy) or adhere to reality
Hook - As Jo said; why is the reader going to want to keep going? What makes your book special and worthy of the audience's investment?
Intro to at least one main character - There can be other protags/ main character, but you need to introduce someone to intrigue the audience (could be villain actually). But you can't just describe the world/ setting for an entire chapter. I mean, you could, but that would be more of a treatise rather than a novel.
Interest the audience in main character - This character has to do something (Save the Cat in screenwriting) to endear him/her to the audience.
Intro the main plotline - It doesn't have to be "drop this ring into a volcano to destroy Sauron," but the ring at least needs to be introduced.

And, you know, also be well-written, exciting and all that. So yeah, a lot of thought goes into the first chapter. Or at least it should.

Hmm I don't quite agree. You don't have to introduce the main plot, but at least the theme, or tone or setting. One popular first chapter method is to start one plot whose only purpose is to introduce the main plot in chapter two, or more. As long as something that will continue throughout the novel, like the main character or the general tone.
 

Matticus Primal

Journeyed there and back again
#11
Hmm I don't quite agree. You don't have to introduce the main plot, but at least the theme, or tone or setting. One popular first chapter method is to start one plot whose only purpose is to introduce the main plot in chapter two, or more. As long as something that will continue throughout the novel, like the main character or the general tone.
I think I inelegantly explained myself and we're closer to agreeing than it initially appears. That's why I said the ring needs to be introduced, which does indeed start the quest/ main plotline for LOTR, though it's not really apparent that's the case at the time.

So, to clarify, I think the inciting incident, the major event that disrupts the protag/ world's status quo and will need to be overcome over the course of the story itself, needs to be introduced within the first chapter.

Now that's not a "rule" set in stone, but I do believe the inciting incident NEEDS to be early on; the second chapter at the latest. Otherwise it's all just introduction and the pacing will suffer.
 

Bierschneeman

Journeyed there and back again
#12
I think I inelegantly explained myself and we're closer to agreeing than it initially appears. That's why I said the ring needs to be introduced, which does indeed start the quest/ main plotline for LOTR, though it's not really apparent that's the case at the time.

So, to clarify, I think the inciting incident, the major event that disrupts the protag/ world's status quo and will need to be overcome over the course of the story itself, needs to be introduced within the first chapter.

Now that's not a "rule" set in stone, but I do believe the inciting incident NEEDS to be early on; the second chapter at the latest. Otherwise it's all just introduction and the pacing will suffer.
Yes....And unfortunately no.
I don't think the ring needs to be introduced. Supposing "the hobbit" didn't exist. Frodo could have simply joined bilbao on his quest to retrace his steps, and in chapter two they were interrupted by gandalf trying to leave the shire.

Ok that's an inelegant example. But I stand by it.
 

Matticus Primal

Journeyed there and back again
#13
Yes....And unfortunately no.
I don't think the ring needs to be introduced. Supposing "the hobbit" didn't exist. Frodo could have simply joined bilbao on his quest to retrace his steps, and in chapter two they were interrupted by gandalf trying to leave the shire.

Ok that's an inelegant example. But I stand by it.
Is the ring actually introduced in chapter 1? I don't own a copy so can't check.

It's funny, just last week a screenwriter friend and I were discussing LOTR and what the inciting incident was and if the inciting incident was actually the dramatic question for the entire series. One of the interesting things about LOTR is that the ring throughline is almost entirely independent of the other throughlines after the fellowship breaks up. Basically, while everyone was affected by Frodo's success, very few knew what was going on. So we started to wonder if the inciting incident was in fact Sauron raising his army (that's what threw most people's equilibrium out of whack after all), or was it Gandalf arriving, or perhaps Gollum losing the ring. Or maybe Sauron fashioning the ring in the first place.

Basically we came to the conclusion that if you cast a wide enough net in defining your inciting incident, anything will apply. So we Occam Razored (totally a verb no matter what spell check says) and decided it was Frodo's receiving of the ring. Not saying we're right, but we did spend more time thinking about this than it probably deserved.
 

Bierschneeman

Journeyed there and back again
#14
Is the ring actually introduced in chapter 1? I don't own a copy so can't check.

It's funny, just last week a screenwriter friend and I were discussing LOTR and what the inciting incident was and if the inciting incident was actually the dramatic question for the entire series. One of the interesting things about LOTR is that the ring throughline is almost entirely independent of the other throughlines after the fellowship breaks up. Basically, while everyone was affected by Frodo's success, very few knew what was going on. So we started to wonder if the inciting incident was in fact Sauron raising his army (that's what threw most people's equilibrium out of whack after all), or was it Gandalf arriving, or perhaps Gollum losing the ring. Or maybe Sauron fashioning the ring in the first place.

Basically we came to the conclusion that if you cast a wide enough net in defining your inciting incident, anything will apply. So we Occam Razored (totally a verb no matter what spell check says) and decided it was Frodo's receiving of the ring. Not saying we're right, but we did spend more time thinking about this than it probably deserved.
Yes he does, it mostly happens similarly to the book. Bilbo plans a party...party occurs, then he disappears never to be seen again. Gandalf then confronts him about it and there's that whole not its not on mantelpiece but in my pocket bit.

Although there is two prechapters before chapter one...
 

Matticus Primal

Journeyed there and back again
#15
Yes he does, it mostly happens similarly to the book. Bilbo plans a party...party occurs, then he disappears never to be seen again. Gandalf then confronts him about it and there's that whole not its not on mantelpiece but in my pocket bit.
Thanks for clearing that up.

Although there is two prechapters before chapter one...
Ah, the even more dreaded prologue, which is pretty divisive (so much so I swear @TomTB said somewhere he never remembers them, but I am too lazy to go check). I have a theory that the prologue, other than to just generally annoy people, gets to the even greater inciting incident; eg the big event that really kicks the story into gear, even though it usually doesn't include the protag in the slightest. I don't know what they were for LOTR, but in A Game of Thrones we catch our first glimpse of the white walkers, in The Eye of the World we see the world getting all broken, Lies of Locke Lemora has him being sold as a thief as a young boy, and...

Well, that the only ones I can come up with off the top of my head (eg the only ones currently on my kindle that I can check). I am currently reading The Black Prism and will note that it doesn't have a prologue at all.

But I think the prologue is often used to orient the reader to setting, time period, conceit, and genre but without the protagonist at all. So they're sort of weird in that regard, and that's possibly why many people don't like them. Because they don't really make sense until after you've read the rest of the book.
 

Bierschneeman

Journeyed there and back again
#16
Thanks for clearing that up.



Ah, the even more dreaded prologue, which is pretty divisive (so much so I swear @TomTB said somewhere he never remembers them, but I am too lazy to go check). I have a theory that the prologue, other than to just generally annoy people, gets to the even greater inciting incident; eg the big event that really kicks the story into gear, even though it usually doesn't include the protag in the slightest. I don't know what they were for LOTR, but in A Game of Thrones we catch our first glimpse of the white walkers, in The Eye of the World we see the world getting all broken, Lies of Locke Lemora has him being sold as a thief as a young boy, and...

Well, that the only ones I can come up with off the top of my head (eg the only ones currently on my kindle that I can check). I am currently reading The Black Prism and will note that it doesn't have a prologue at all.

But I think the prologue is often used to orient the reader to setting, time period, conceit, and genre but without the protagonist at all. So they're sort of weird in that regard, and that's possibly why many people don't like them. Because they don't really make sense until after you've read the rest of the book.
Yes it happens and it tends to be the better way.
In study in scarlet we are introduced to the characters but nothing that ties to the crime occurs or Is revealed.
In grapes of wrath we set the tone of a desolate depression in Oklahoma and a son returning home from prison. Not the journey that encompasses the whole book.
I can't think of more right now, but I've read a few.
 

Theophania

Journeyed there and back again
#17
Ah, the even more dreaded prologue, which is pretty divisive (so much so I swear @TomTB said somewhere he never remembers them, but I am too lazy to go check). I have a theory that the prologue, other than to just generally annoy people, gets to the even greater inciting incident; eg the big event that really kicks the story into gear, even though it usually doesn't include the protag in the slightest.
You might be right, at that.

Prologues are out of fashion at the moment, I think, but possibly at least partly because so many authors (or so I'm told) try to use them as a place to put all the random boring stuff that the reader doesn't need to know but the author thinks they do. So you tend to get a bunch of stuff and you end up thinking, "Why am I reading this? What's going on? Do I care?"

On the other hand, you've got authors like David Eddings who does the faux-historical thing with his prologues in the Belgariad, where you get a big slice of what's supposed to be an in-world history. And that links in with @Matticus Primal's theory: the history stuff links in with the big, overarching plot about the war between the gods, and you get a different slice in each book.

On the other hand, in the Elenium, where there's classic prologue material (the events surrounding Sparhawk's exile), we don't get one at all: we just get dumped straight into the action with Sparhawk arriving back in town in the rain. We find out why he's been away for ten years in dribs and drabs through the book, and that works fine.

Eddings (or, the Eddingses, to be more accurate) knew how to use a prologue. :)
 

Maark Abbott

Journeyed there and back again
#18
Prologues are fun. My first book has a five-chapter prologue which sets up the events for the main story - I think it's somewhere around 150 pages or so? I mostly did this to give people an insight into why the main character becomes as they are during the main bulk of the story.
 

Silvion Night

Sir Readalot
Staff member
#19
Prologues are fun. My first book has a five-chapter prologue which sets up the events for the main story - I think it's somewhere around 150 pages or so? I mostly did this to give people an insight into why the main character becomes as they are during the main bulk of the story.
Hmm, can that still be called a prologue though? Seems more like a Part 1. Still, I suppose the definition of 'prologue' is not set in stone.
 

Bierschneeman

Journeyed there and back again
#20
Prologues are fun. My first book has a five-chapter prologue which sets up the events for the main story - I think it's somewhere around 150 pages or so? I mostly did this to give people an insight into why the main character becomes as they are during the main bulk of the story.
Can I skip your prologue and still understand the story?