Wednesday, May 13, 2015

How Gripping Does A First Chapter Have To Be, Anyway?

A couple of weeks ago I read a 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?



  1. Readers already know a book is an investment of time, so they are more accepting of slow builds.
    And for the record, none of mine start with a huge bang.

  2. I think it depends on the hook. Using Gone Girl as an example, the character starts out contemplating his wife's skull. That makes it interesting and intriguing and makes one wonder, "what the heck?" If there's nothing odd, nothing out of the ordinary, nothing that hooks, then the slowness kills the story for me and I set it aside.

    Though Gone Girl doesn't have much going on, it has tension. Tension and action aren't the same thing. So I agree that it doesn't have to hit the ground running. That's just one way to generate tension.

  3. There are different hooks. There's action, then there's emotion. I recently read a great opening. It keeps me reading because I'm so connected to the character. With that said, my books are fast paced.

  4. This just goes to prove that the "rules" are only "guidelines" -- to paraphrase Captain Barbossa in Pirates of the Caribbean. They are trying to help you avoid certain pitfalls, but they don't cover every situation.

    In Gone Girl, it's all about the mood and suspense. We know we're reading a book about a man who may have murdered his wife, and so even if his actions are mundane in that first chapter, we are alert for every clue. Did he do it? Can we tell right away?

    In my second book, I broke a rule by starting with a prologue. Lots of CPs advised me to take it out, but my agent never did, and neither did my editor. The prologue set up a small mystery that became important later on. The reason I wanted it to be there was so that the reader would know something my MC did not know. This way, the readers were one step ahead picking up clues and thinking that maybe they could solve the mystery before the MC did. Isn't that what readers like to do in a mystery? See if they can solve it first? (I think we always hope we can, but we're delighted to be surprised.)

    So whatever you do in your first chapter, make sure it's for a reason. What constitutes as "gripping" will vary book by book. :)

  5. I think you're right (or Mooderino is), that it's more about the anticipation than having things happen right away. Every story is different, and some need more setup than others. I also think, considering I have a screenwriting degree, that people who say first chapters need to start with lots of action are thinking more in terms of visual media. In a film, lots of action grabs immediate attention (and if it's an action movie, delivers right away on its tacit promise). But I've had literary agents say, "If I don't care about the characters yet, starting with them in some crazy action scene isn't going to hold my interest. At worst, I'll be confused, at best it just won't matter to me. And if it doesn't matter, I won't want to read it."

  6. I have many books I almost stopped reading because of the slow start. Something made me continue, but it was a battle. As opposed to other stories that hooked me in the beginning. Not necessarily by action, but maybe mental or a promise of action. Not sure. For me, I think the beginning must be captivating, somehow.

  7. I've never thought of it that way, but yes, that's a very good point. Anticipation will draw me along even if the first chapter is a bit dull.

  8. I couldn't agree more. Some genres lend themselves well to thrilling first chapters - mystery is the best - but many really don't, and forcing it doesn't work. If the first chapter is engaging and interesting, or at least well-written and promising, I'll always keep reading.

  9. You've hit the nail on the head! I couldn't agree more. What is a chapter in any long work of fiction but a piece of the entire story that will not satisfy all by itself. Readers know not to expect that. It's the lit agents who keep saying they won't read past Chapter 1 of a manuscript if it isn't "riveting." They are all hypocrites because how many truly "riveting" 1st chapters are actually out there in published books-land? Not a whole lot. It's subjective and not realistic, so don't even worry about it. Just do the best you can and hint at great times to come, like you said.

  10. This was very helpful. I'm a rule follower by nature. Sometimes in writing, the rules get in my way.

  11. To me, it depends on the story and the reader. For children, getting their attention is paramount. I think of how much I loved Harry Potter and how much my son did not. In fact, he didn't get interested until Harry started doing magic. Until then I read alone. So as an adult I was okay with anticipation.

    These rules we follow exists because to break them may mean rejection. Some writers are willing to take the chance. They have faith in their work. Could that be the lesson we all need to learn? :-)

    Anna from Elements of Writing