Your First Date With Your Reader
A novel is a commitment – and a first chapter is rather like a first date. During that first chapter, your reader’s radar is up: they are checking you out, trying you on for size, before going in for the long haul. They want to believe your promises… but they’ve been burnt before. The first chapter is when your reader is the most starry-eyed – but also, at their most cynical. The reason many publishers and agents ‘read to reject’ is because they are attuned more finely than anyone to this reality.
The first chapter can be the hardest of all to balance, because the writer has so many tasks to accomplish: introducing characters, setting the scenes to come, establishing the tone, foreshadowing, and – most importantly – making the reader care enough about the story to read on. Overdo one element, and the reader may lose interest. Conversely, skimp on one, and the same may occur.
Pacing is key. If the story is too slow, your reader may start wondering if there are other things they would rather be doing. If it’s too fast, then there’s less chance for them to invest in it.
A Balancing Act
What you put in and what you leave out are of equal importance. Nothing makes a reader’s eyes glaze over faster than a long, dry paragraph about ancient wars and dead kings. Avoid slowing your first chapter by inserting too much backstory or exposition, and try to show, rather than tell, as much as you can. Ask yourself if the reader really needs that information.
If they do – if that exposition is crucial for understanding the story – don’t cut it altogether. This is a sure-fire way to confuse, and ultimately lose, your reader. Rather than resorting to an info-dump, see if you can weave it into the story naturally: through dialogue, or through the way your protagonist interacts with the world around them.
Aim for clarity
“Good prose is like a windowpane,” said George Orwell. Often what is clear to us as the writer isn’t clear to the reader. If readers have to put too much effort into figuring out what are you are trying to say, the story stops dead. Aim, too, for prose that doesn’t draw too much attention to itself. Let the reader concentrate on the story at hand.
Keep the reader’s eyes moving down the page
Dialogue moves the eye quickly down the page. Conflicts, both external and internal, accomplish the same. During action scenes, short, punchy sentences keep things rolling – and liberal paragraph breaks allow an impatient reader to skim while still taking it all in.
If all else fails, write the first chapter last
I remember the difficult task of cutting my newbie writer teeth on the first chapter. No matter how many times I tried, I couldn’t get it right. However, once I had clocked up enough hours writing the rest of the book, I was able to go back with new skills and fresh eyes. Of all the chapters in a book, the first chapter is often the most difficult, and therefore, the one that benefits the most from writing experience. If you’re having trouble, just put it away – and don’t come back until you’ve finished the rest of the book. You’ll be surprised at how easily it will come to you.
The quote below has sustained me through the process of learning to write: