First, I want to apologize to my fellow Project Mayhemers for not being around much the past few months. I’ve been finishing a draft of my new sci fi/fantasy story and it’s taken me way longer than I originally planned. Now that it’s done, I’m contemplating what needs to be tweaked. That led me to the idea for this post, along with the knowledge that I need to get my first chapter to work and work well. Avid readers will give books a chance to develop their stories, but busy/not so avid readers often need to be pulled in by page ten or so to be convinced to read on. Tastes are different though; some readers are pulled in by character while others need the plot to hook them. Finding the balance to appeal to both sorts of readers is the real challenge.
Very accomplished writers can get away with just plot or character in the first few pages if the writing is so compelling you have to keep reading. Margaret Peterson Haddix’s FOUND is a good example. The main character isn’t even in the first chapter, and Peterson breaks an unspoken rule by using the point of view of an adult character, but those pages are so spooky, I couldn’t stop reading.
THE PENDERWICKS by Jeanne Birdsall goes to the other extreme. The first chapter of it focuses almost solely on character development, drawing the reader right into the Penderwick family with all their various personalities. There is one tiny hint about a ‘surprise’ and we know the sisters are on their way to a place called Arundel. Once they get there, one of them glimpes a boy in the window, but that’s about the extent of the plot development. At that point, I was so interested in the characters though, I didn't really care that I couldn't begin to guess what the story would involve.
At first glance, plot appears to be the easier way to hook readers. It would seem if you make the story exciting, people will keep reading. But not everyone can pull it off like Haddix did. There was a book I tried to read last year which opens with a scene of a family in extreme danger. I think al l the family members were trapped in cages swinging over a giant chasm or something and they were all about to fall or be eaten by some monster or burned up or something. As you can probably tell, the story didn’t work for me. Even though it should have been scary, it wasn’t really, and since I didn’t know anything about the characters beyond their names and ages, I didn’t care they were in mortal peril. I assume they escaped the impending doom, because it would have been a short book otherwise, but I can’t say for sure because I stopped reading.
So if readers need character development as well as plot, what do we need exactly? For me, I need to find something sympathetic about the main character, either some vulnerability, or a hint that they have an interesting or quirky personality or way of looking at the world. If something about the character makes me smile, so much the better. I know not every book could or should have touches of humor, but it can add just enough to some stories to make me keep reading.
After studying many, many first chapters or first ten pages of books I like, I’ve come up with a series of questions to help me get my own first pages to work.
1. What do I know about the main character?
2. From what I know, does that information make him or her seem interesting, funny, or slightly out of the ordinary?
3. What hint is given about the main plot?
4. If there isn’t a hint about the main plot, is there at least a question I want answered that makes me want to read on?
These are my questions, but I’ll throw this open. Any other tips you would like to share on what makes first chapters work for you? Are there any books that you can recommend with particularly well-written first pages?
~ Dee Garretson