The question seems to have an obvious set of answers – a good first chapter should reveal interesting characters the reader empathises with, a plausible and intriguing plot, and prose that enhances both and gets in the way of neither.
The novel has evolved through time, each era taking different approaches to narrative. Earlier times invested in exposition, delaying the introduction of character, plot and action to an extent our era can find stilted and unpalatable; there’s too much author, too little plot and character. We want to cut to the chase.
How our narrative styles have changed is partly in response to new cultural norms, technology and the advent of radio plays, films, pulp fiction, television and video games.
The content of what we write has also changed with the events of the time. In the 20th century, everything changed when humanity found it easy to slaughter millions of its own species in world wars. Hope of a grand future died, and death itself loomed with a bleak immediacy that didn’t necessarily offer the comfort of an afterlife.
Let’s grab some books off the shelves to see what a few authors do in their first chapters, and whether a pattern emerges as to what works and what doesn’t.
In The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters is a contemporary homage to Gothic novels. The first chapter is longish at forty pages, and uses the tropes, phrasing and style of an earlier age to dip the reader’s toe in the slow moving waters of its plot. While meticulously written, one can find this faithfully retro approach richly rewarding, or impressive but ultimately less engaging than the modern styles.
Catch 22 by Joseph Heller still reads as fresh and blackly funny as when it was published in the sixties. The first chapter uses dead-pan prose and dialogue to establish the curiously amoral protagonist malingering in a hospital ward. Few details of the wider context are revealed, and the only plot point is a minor note played at the very end of the chapter. This approach effectively creates characters by uncritical observation of their behaviours. One portrait stands in contrast to the rest – an ill patient is painted with a delicacy and humanity that gives gravitas to the rest. It also signals that the reader may not make assumptions about what comes next.
Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan is an ethereal story that uses fantasy, fairy tale and literary fiction tropes. A short prologue uses a mix of ‘medievalised’ prose to paint a moment during haymaking when a young couple have just made love, followed by an event that imbues a faint supernatural element to the narrative. The first chapter makes no reference to the prologue and takes the reader to a more brutal place using an omniscient narrator who almost slips into first-person when relating feelings or memories. It’s a grim tale of rape, incest, abortion and murder – and that’s just the first chapter. The disconnect between prologue and first chapter reflects the novel as a whole, and can be regarded as intriguing, frustrating or both.
Bruce Pascoe won the 2013 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for young adult fiction with Fog, A Dox, a bush story of the love between humans and other animals. The first short chapter is written in a deceptively simple style to suit the character of the older protagonist. Narration is omniscient while describing action, and dips into first-person stream of consciousness to take up the protagonist and his dog’s thoughts. Pascoe uses a mix of broad strokes and small touches that quickly and colourfully paint his novel’s world. He lightly references an indigenous past, and effortlessly manages to reveal the natures of a dozen or so wild creatures in just a few pages. The end of the chapter presents the protagonist with a dilemma in a wry, understated way. Pascoe’s observational skills, born of time in the bush, give a rewarding emotional truth to every element in this.
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness was an unwritten story by Siobhan Dowd. Dying, she gave it to Ness, who chose not to emulate her voice, but write in a style he hoped she’d like. The first chapter, using an omniscient narrator, quickly establishes the presence of an undefined monster, the teen male protagonist, and his difficulty both with a recurring nightmare and not telling anyone about it. Images of death slip in via references to the neighbouring graveyard, the dark of the night, and an ancient tree. The monster emerges, confronts the boy, and leaves an enigmatic threat. An elegiac tension is established. Supernatural intrigue effectively mitigates the theme of death.
While authors take different approaches to their first chapters that may or may not reflect the whole novel, most offer an effective mix of broad strokes and smaller deft touches to imply a great deal in a short space. The transition from first to subsequent chapters can be seamless or disjointed, and this can be problematic for readers. Ultimately, the level of empathy and intrigue the author generates in those first pages is the key to writing that enchants and compels the reader to turn the page.
Ben Marshall’s author website: www.benmarshall-wordpirate.com
Ben Marshall’s bio page
Writing Novels in Australia