Lots of talk about beginnings lately, here and in the ether. A 4th semester student was gathering book recommendations on Facebook of books that dangle a promise in the first chapter. (The suggestions she got were: Holes, The Book Thief, The Wednesday Wars, The Thief, and The Schwa Was Here.)
I’m working on my own beginning. This is the first totally new thing I’ve written for some time; the last two books I’ve written were sequels and I didn’t need to spend too much time introducing the characters or the world. So I’m relearning how to begin a book. And I don’t know what the rules are. Once I was in a writing group and someone detailed for me exactly what a first chapter of a novel should do. I still remember her standing over me saying, “Anne, the first chapter of a book…..” Alas, I don’t remember the rest.
So, here’s what I think about when I write beginnings:
I want my first chapter to give a strong sense of the main character. I want it to give some idea of what kind of story this will be. I want it to introduce the characters and story through active scenes. And I want the reader to want to turn the page to see what happens in chapter two.
Pretty simple, right? Am I missing anything?
There’s a huge temptation in a first chapter to have it be an info dump, to use the whole thing to set up the story that’s going to happen in chapter two. We talk about books that begin before the story begins, a kind of prologue where the main character walks to school or lies in bed and thinks about things. I did this on the first draft of my first novel, in which there’s a chemical spill in a small town. I placed all the characters in a bookstore cafe and introduced them leisurely as they drank their coffee and didn’t do much, until the last line of the chapter when the sirens go off. My brother read it and said, “Start with the spill.” He was right, and it’s the best advice on beginnings I ever got.
On another note, I heard a reading a year ago of one of the most gripping first chapters I’ve ever encountered. The book it belonged to is City of Cannibals, by Ricki Thompson, a beloved Hamline graduate assistant, and it’s just come out. Anita Silvey called it one of the best pieces of historical fiction she’d ever read–there’s an epigraph for you.