There has been some debate on whether the first or last chapter of your novel is the most important. I say they are both important for different reasons. But let’s talk about your novel’s first chapter, for it is the chapter that will sell your book (or not, for that matter).
Literary agents and publishers today can be swamped with up to a hundred submissions per day. That’s a lot of competition, people. So the question is: How are you going to get your novel out of the slush pile?
Though I’d love to tell you that agents or publishers (or publisher assistants) actually read your whole first chapter, it simply isn’t true (most of the time). Especially if your manuscript or query letter is unsolicited. Your future publication can all come down to the first few paragraphs. Yup, that’s it. More often than not the assistants to the editor are the ones to decide if your novel is worthy enough to garner the attention of a senior editor. Then the senior editor reads the first few paragraphs and either trashes it or continues reading.
Hey, put away that rope, your life isn’t over yet. It may be extremely difficult to get traditionally published, but it’s not impossible. Here are some tips I have learned that will help your novel catch the attention of almost any reader (and when I say reader, I also mean publishers and agents). This also applies to self-publishers because if your book doesn’t hook the reader from the get-go, it probably won’t sell very well.
~ The opening scene of your novel needs to intrigue the reader, make them curious enough to keep reading. Give your character a goal, then provide an obstacle that threatens that goal, then the dilemma of how to solve the problem.
~ Don’t start out with too much description. That’s boring. Action, drama, problems, suspense. That’s where the money is.
~ Don’t fill your first chapter with backstory. To be honest, I’m guilty of this. I actually had to rewrite my first chapter after I found this out. What can I say, I was once a newbie writer. The reader wants to know what’s happening now, not the main character’s whole backstory. That can be weaved throughout the novel. Start your novel where the action begins, not with a lot of who, where, why type of explanation. But it is important to introduce an interesting main character in the first chapter. Give the reader just enough to find the protagonist enticing, but not to the point where we know his childhood fears, mother’s maiden name, and shoe size. (Okay, that was kind of a joke, because if you’re writing about your character’s shoe size, then you have more problems than just banging out an awesome first chapter, but you get the idea.)
~ If your having trouble figuring out how to open up your novel, read books from your genre. I think one of the most important ways to become a proficient writer is be a reader before a writer. Read as much as you can in your genre before writing your book. It helps give you insights on what sells, what’s popular, and what publishers are looking for.
~ Remember: The first chapter sets the tone, voice, and atmosphere of the story. This is where diction becomes most important. Find the appropriate wording that creates the kind of tension, mood, or emotion you want to portray.
~ One excellent way to start a novel is with a point of conflict, like at a place where the protagonist is in immediate danger. In my novel, Devoured by Affliction, my protagonist wakes up chained to a surgical table. Discovery of a dead body is another awesome start to a novel. But try to be orginal, too.
~ What a writer needs to provide is a hook. The hook can be an awesome character that the reader wants to learn more about, it can be a conflict within the story, which I mentioned before, or it can be an action that excites the reader from the get-go.
~ End the first chapter with that same excitement as the beginning. The last couple of lines should pose a question to the reader that leads them to rush to the second chapter instead of putting the book down. By the end of the chapter, the reader should have a basic introduction of the protagonist, know the atmosphere of the novel, know where the story takes place, know the main conflict, and especially have experienced excitement or some deep emotion that makes them want to read more.