(Re-post of a post from last year)
I had an epiphany on Monday night while reading Piers Anthony’s On a Pale Horse which has caused me to completely rewrite the first chapter of my novel-in-progress (again):
A good first chapter is just a short story with a twist.
To some extent, I think every chapter is like that. (On Twitter the other day, some people were commenting on how to decide where to put chapter breaks, and one theory was that each chapter should be a little semi-self-contained story.) But the first chapter, in particular, isn’t weighted down with the rest of the plot of the book yet, and needs to tell its own story. Ideally, I think it works like this: your first chapter is a mini-story, with a beginning, middle, and sort-of end, which also mentions some things to set up the world of the rest of the book. Then at the end of the chapter, instead of the ending of a story, you get a twist that sets up the rest of the story and propels it forward.
Here’s how this works in On a Pale Horse. The chapter opens with a man looking to buy enchanted stones. He tests a Deathstone, which says he’ll die that day, but rejects it. He tests a Lovestone, which says he’ll find love within the hour. He rejects it. The owner offers a Wealthstone, which finds loose money. The man is destitute, so the shop owner offers to give him the Wealthstone if he will take the Lovestone and lead the owner to the woman he’s meant to find.
On his way home, being followed by the shop owner, the man sees the woman and the Lovestone lights up. The owner swoops in and saves the woman’s life, so she’ll fall in love with him instead. The man takes the Wealthstone he has earned home. There, he discovers that it mostly finds loose change, and that there’s no way it will ever make him rich.
Penniless, starving, and furious about his bad bargain (because he lost the chance to have love with the woman he found who was also a rich heiress), the man decides to kill himself. As he raises the gun to his head, Death comes in the door for him: and he shoots Death instead.
I love the structure of this chapter. It has a story which is almost like a folktale in its simplicity. The man makes a choice, sees its consequences, and realizes it was a bad choice. But instead of ending the story there, he accidentally kills Death in the last sentence of the chapter, so he has to become the next Death. (And the rest of the book is about his adventures as Death.)
Here’s another great first chapter, for a new YA book that comes out in January, Across the Universe by Beth Revis. I’ll let it speak for itself, but it’s another great example of a short story, with its own conflict, with a twist at the end that propels you further into the book. [ETA: No link since the book’s been out most of a year, but it’s definitely worth a read!]