post over at Moody Writing that got me thinking. It was one of his Chapter One Analyses where he breaks down the first chapters of popular books, explaining what he thought worked and what didn’t. His latest entry was Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, and while I don’t want to duplicate the post here, I was struck by how many so-called rules of writing the author broke.
1. The book starts with the main character waking up in the morning.
2. The first chapter has lots of backstory.
3. The characters are unappealing.
As Mooderino puts it, “So nothing much happens in this opening chapter. It’s more about tone and introduction.”
And after a little more analysis, he concludes:
“What it does tell you is that readers aren’t all that bothered about how a story starts if they have a reasonable expectation that good things are coming. You just have to find a way to give them that expectation.”
And that got my attention. Because deep down inside my writer’s soul—despite all the blog posts and writing articles I've read that say if your opening chapter isn’t hitting the ground moving, you might as well not bother publishing it—I believe Mooderino is right.
I’ve enjoyed many, many books that began with what I would consider slow moving first chapters. Books that also received great reviews from other readers. I’m not saying you shouldn’t do everything you can to make your first chapter great, but in my opinion, most of the time all you need is a first chapter that lays the foundation for the story and hints at conflicts to come. The experts would argue that in today’s fast paced society, people don’t give you much time to capture their attention, so you've got to hit them hard and fast. That may be true to some extent, but how many of those people read books anyway? I suspect that our real audience—the people who would actually consider buying a book—will give us more leeway than that.
This doesn’t mean I'll stop rewriting my first chapters to make them stronger, but it does mean I'll be more open as to how I write them. Because giving readers the expectation that good things are coming may well be the most important attribute of a good first chapter.
What's your opinion on first chapters?