Authors find writing first chapters challenging for many reasons. Ideally, we should: Begin with action Describe a setting Establish the story's predominant tone Introduce one or more main characters (preferabl...
- Begin with action
- Describe a setting
- Establish the story's predominant tone
- Introduce one or more main characters (preferably including the protagonist)
- Show these characters' desires and flaws
- Suggest the novel's most significant theme
- Present a story problem
- Convey back-story
Phew! That's a lot.
Let's take a look at a highly effective first chapter, from Taylor Jenkins Reid's Maybe in Another Life. (Here's the first chapter.)
At the age of twenty-nine, Hannah Martin still has no idea what she wants to do with her life. Shortly after moving back to her hometown of Los Angeles, she goes out to a bar with her best friend, Gabby, and reconnects with her high school boyfriend, Ethan. Just after midnight, she is offered a ride home by each of them.
What happens if she leaves with Gabby?
What happens if she leaves with Ethan?
As these two alternate realities run their course, Maybe in Another Life raises questions about fate and true love: Is anything meant to be? How much in our life is determined by chance? And perhaps, most compellingly: Is there such a thing as a soul mate?
So how does Reid tackle her first chapter?
- Action: we learn that protagonist Hannah, on the verge of 30, is starting her life over again, moving back to her hometown after a series of disappointing stints in jobs and cities around the country. This is not an action sequence, but it is an important action she is taking.
- Setting: we see Hannah boarding a plane, frazzled, late, overly apologetic. The plane ride comes to life because the scenario is specific and visually descriptive.
- Tone: through word choice and Hannah's observations, thoughts and actions, we are treated to an engaging tone that is breezy, sweet, comical, insightful and clever.
- Introduction of the protagonist: Reid shrewdly shows Hannah taking pity on a seat neighbor, a woman who is afraid to fly. To make the woman feel better, Hannah talks to her. She shares her story. This is brilliant because it establishes sympathy (how nice of Hannah to care about this stranger), it enables Reid to give us Hannah's back-story without resorting to an "info dump," and it introduces us to Hannah in a familiar way, on a plane. It feels as though we are the stranger meeting Hannah and learning about her life's story up to this point. We can relate to such an experience, and so we feel as if we know Hannah.
- Desire: to belong. ("I don't move from place to place on purpose. It's not a conscious choice to be a nomad. Although I can see that each move is my own decision, predicated on nothing but my ever-growing sense that I don't belong where I am, fueled by the hope that maybe there is, in face, a place I do belong, a place just off in the future.") And flaw: lack of confidence. ("I hate making people get up so that I can squeeze by. This is also why I never go to the bathroom during movies, even though I always have to go to the bathroom during movies.")
- Theme: the theme of indecisiveness (can't decide on a job or a city) and the associated lack of confidence (not wanting to bother anyone) are evident from page one.
- Story problem: Hannah wants to belong. She hopes moving home is the answer.
- Back-story: economically conveyed via the conceit of a reassuringly distracting plane-ride life story. Hannah helps a stranger, and now we know all we need to know about our hero so that the inciting incident may get to the inciting.
All this is decidedly not easy, but it is possible — and readers want and deserve the possible to be made real.