Introductions are the most exciting and ultimately terrifying of the literary endeavors. There is a firmly held belief that without imbuing the essence of a meteor shower into your first few lines, your manuscript will summarily find its new home in the overly-inhabited trash pile of the publisher. I disagree with this sentiment, primarily because I firmly believe that by now they have fully embraced the art of recycling.
How do you make your own beautiful creation stand out like a beacon of hope to prospective readers? I’ve never felt particularly qualified to answer this question. After all, its not exactly like I’ve got a slew of best sellers standing proudly at attention while bearing my name. No, I do not have that. But then I realized that I have something else, something better. I am an avid reader- one of those book junkies you hope to hook on your opening line, fiercely loyal to my favorite authors and quick to recommend their newest work. What could possibly make me more qualified than being a proud member of what is ultimately the target audience?
I believe that there is something universal that all agents, publishers and readers are looking for when they peruse the pages; they want to find something honest, original and brave. The best work will keep your mind reeling and your fingers feverishly thumbing through the pages. In your first chapter, you need to catch their attention and give them a reason to stay. Think of it like an appetizer, giving them a taste for what the kitchen has to offer. But how do you get them to stay?
There are a thousand theories on the do’s and don’ts of a first chapter, a lot of it can be pretty conflicting; don’t open with a dream sequence, don’t have too little dialog but also don’t open with dialog; don’t open with a character’s thoughts. Now, while there may be some level of merit to some of these ‘rules’ in regards to specific publishers, I’ve never turned a book down because the character had a dream on page one. I think a lot of this has to do with the context of the story, and while you should perhaps be cautious using different techniques, I don’t think there are any automatic disqualifiers. So instead, I am going to focus on the style of the first chapter as opposed to the concrete content.
Keep your prose tight. This is the biggest struggle of the first chapter. Tight verbiage is the sign of a seasoned writer. We all want to show off our skills, to pull someone in. It is all too easy to fall into the trap of flourishing descriptions and intense back-stories. I strongly advise that you be sparing. You don’t need to explain your entire world in the first chapter; you can let the mysteries slowly unfold throughout your work. Don’t lay all of your chips down up front. Remember who you are and why you are writing this book. What is it about? What is your purpose? Hold on to that and do not lose your focus.
Ensure that your tense and point of view stay uniform. If you have a changing POV in your story, make it clear quickly who is speaking. I’ve read a book or two where I had no idea which character I was following for a few pages, and that can get very frustrating for a reader. You want your work to be smooth, to be concise and easy to follow. Unclear shifting of tense and POV will leave your reader confused, which doesn’t exactly entice them to continue on to the next page. Consistency will be key.
Introduce a strong character right away. The quickest way to get a reader hooked is to give them something to care about. Typically, this means that you need to give them a character that will matter to them. The main point here is to give them a character that feels real; one that you could picture living and breathing, a three dimensional being that draws them in. In my personal opinion, the focus should be more on their personality traits and how they are interacting with the world around them, as opposed to flower descriptors. Teach them about your character through movement; let their actions speak for them. You don’t have to explain that they have a chip on their shoulder, or that they would give you the shirt off their back- show the reader these traits, let them come to these conclusions on their own instead of having to take your word for it. After all, you created them- of course you love them. Let them fall for your creation too.
Be sparing with your descriptive settings. The main point to take away from this piece of advice is that you don’t want to get lost in your setting; unless your scenery is essentially acting the part of a character, it’s best to be concise. You can show off your descriptive prowess later in the story when your reader has a reason to care; right now, you still need to convince them to turn the page. It is easy to get lost in descriptors. I have put some books down simply because the explanations overpowered the story itself. If it’s not going to add to the scene, then perhaps it doesn’t belong there. Pack a punch with the least amount of details, get creative with how you describe your scene. For example; in Crime and Punishment, the scene is described in terms of the way that Raskolnikov resented the opulence of St. Petersburg. You were able to understand the setting through your character’s eyes in a way that helped lay the groundwork for the rest of the story. Describe without making it obvious what you are doing. It might be an excellent passage, but if it doesn’t add to the story, then you might need to let it go, or perhaps find a more fitting section for it to call home.
Choose your details carefully, create a sense of urgency. When you do use your descriptive words, make sure they pack a punch. Instead of saying that the bike was dusty from lack of use, show the reader the corroded metal and the blanket of unused cobwebs. Use imagery that will stick, something that will hold the attention. Amp up your word choice, step outside of the box.
If possible, attempt a mini plot. This wont work in every situation, but in some situations, having a mini-plot to delve through will give your readers something to sink their teeth into. It will introduce your characters and show how they handle tough situations. This could be something similar to a magazine excerpt with ‘false closure’ at the end. It will only be the tip of the iceberg, but it will show what your story might contain. Take Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, for example; the first chapter stood alone quite well, it introduced the setting and the life that Harry was going to have, it ended with ‘false closure,’ and it successfully hooked the reader enough to start in the Chapter 2 where the crux of the story began to unfold.
Be fashionably late to your own party. Begin your story as late as you can, as close to the drama as possible. You want your reader to jump in with a sense of urgency, you don’t want them meandering through page after page without a clear path. Throw them into the action just before the elevator door closes, right as the plane is about to take off, when the cab has sped by.
Conflict is the key. Bait them, give them a reason to see the story through to the end. Make them care about what happens. Make them believe in your characters the way that you do. And make them squirm a little bit. We all love a touch of conflict, a dash of drama- do not disappoint, give them a taste of what your book has to offer.
Be bold. Put your best work out there. Do not humbly introduce your story, do it with a flourish. Make it memorable. Have confidence in your work. Remember why you are doing this and show them.
Take my advice with a grain of salt, like I said- I do not have a number of best sellers behind my name. I am bumbling along like everyone else. What works for me or my pieces might not work for yours- that doesn’t mean that one way is right and the other is wrong; they are different creations in need of different elements. I am a reader, that is where my insights come from. I acknowledge the elements that I crave to read and try to work those into my own pieces. Do your own research to decide what works for you.
Pick your favorite books and find a common thread. What made you turn the page, what hooked you, what was it about that story that made it impossible to turn down? Read your favorite books and look at them with your writerly eyes. You might be amazed at the simplistic beauty that brought you back for more. No two stories are ever the same, therefore the advice to imprint on each project will not be universal. You know your style and your stories better than anyone. Make them shine.