When I go to the library to find new reading material, the first thing I do is read the opening paragraph and skim through the first few pages of each selection.
If I don’t like what I see, the book goes back on the shelf.
Imagine literary agents and editors doing the same thing when they read your manuscript. If the first pages are no good, they’ll likely believe the rest of the book is more of the same (even if you think it gets better as it goes on).
The best way I’ve found to study what makes a good first chapter is to read a variety of them. Not reading the entire book means you’re only getting an isolated picture, but it also means you can study many examples in a short period of time.
You can find these by going through your home bookshelf, sifting through the library, or finding excerpts of books online. Here are some links I’ve found on the internet to the opening pages of many different novels:
You can check out excerpts of most books on Amazon.com now by going to the book’s profile and clicking on ‘Look Inside,’ if it’s featured above the picture of the book’s cover.
- The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
- All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot
- His Illegal Self by Peter Carey
These are all books I’ve read recently, each one very different in genre, style and tone.
The Washington Post
- Last Night in Twisted River by John Irving
- Swimming by Nicola Keegan
- A Monster’s Notes by Laurie Sheck
- The Story Sisters by Alice Hoffman
- Brooklyn by Colm Toibin
- The Walking People by Mary Beth Keane
- The Brothers Boswell by Philip Baruth
- The Color of Lightning by Paulette Jiles
Elements of a Good First Chapter
I’ll be using The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time as my example, so please read the excerpt online. Note, the book is divided into short scenes rather than full-fledged chapters, so please read more than just the first scene.
This is a young adult novel, very simple to read, but thought-provoking for people of all ages.
The story is told from the point of view of Christopher, who has an unnamed condition similar to (if not) Asperger’s Syndrome. In the opening chapter, Christopher finds a dead dog, speared with a garden fork, on his neighbour’s lawn. His decision to investigate the dog’s death leads to all sorts of complications, and ultimately sends the young boy on a life-altering journey.
The Curious Incident is an excellent example of what makes a good first chapter because:
- It provides key information, but doesn’t give away too much too quickly.
- A great deal of energy is placed into the the first paragraph–the place where readers decide whether they will stay or go.
- It begins with something interesting–not necessarily the main conflict, but something important to the rest of the story.
- It immediately captures reader’s interest with a hook, but that doesn’t necessarily have to be action.
- It sets the tone for the rest of the novel.
- The main characters are introduced, but we’re not bombarded with too many characters at once
- It reveals the story’s setting
- It establishes the narrator’s voice and point of view
Weave these criteria through your first chapter, and your story will begin with a bang.
What other books can you recommend we read to study what makes a great opening?