The Essential Features of a Successful First Chapter
Before we analyze the three examples, let’s look at the three components a first chapter needs to have in order to be a success.
1. Create intrigue
This is the oh, I wonder what’s going to happen? component. If your reader isn’t intrigued and wanting to find out what’s going to happen, they’ll have no reason to keep reading to find out what happens.
There are as many ways to create intrigue as there are books, but standard examples include the discovery of a dead body in a detective novel, the introduction of two characters who hate each other in a romance, or the hint of some approaching danger in an adventure story.
2. Create a bond
In order for your reader to care about what’s going to happen, they need to care about your character(s). You can set up a thousand dead bodies, or present the most horrific approaching danger in your chapter one, but if the reader doesn’t care about the main character, the reader is not going to care enough to stick around to find out what happens to them.
As your book progresses your characters will develop in-depth as the reader spends more time with them and finds out more about them, but in chapter one, you need to give your reader a strong indication of the three-dimensionality and interesting personality of your character. Think of a few key clues you can drop that will let the reader know that your character is a complex, interesting, relatable person, to make the reader want to stick around.
3. Create an expectation
You want the reader to be wondering what is going to happen next, but not too much. You need to set the reader’s expectations as to what type of story they’re getting themselves into. If your novel is a murder mystery, don’t start your novel describing a chiseled, half-naked man. Chapter one should set the reader’s expectations as to the genre/type of novel you are writing, and you can achieve this using styling, characterization, setting, and other devices that are typical for your genre. You may think you want to surprise your reader, but if I’m a fan of adventure novels, and your chapter one tells me that this is what I’m getting, I’m going to be disappointed if it ends up being a horror story. Similarly, if your novel is an adventure story but your chapter one is written more like horror, I am likely to put the book down before I get to the thrilling adventure story further in.
Letting the reader know what to expect is also important from a sales perspective: the reason I’m happy to pay $6 for a box of chicken nuggets, but I’m hesitant to pay the same for your (objectively much more valuable) book, is because with the chicken nuggets I know what to expect and therefore I can spend my $6 with confidence. With a book, I don’t know in advance if I’m going to like it, or if I’m going to waste both my money and my time by reading it only to find out it’s not my thing. Setting my expectations around the type of book I have in my hands will make me more likely to persevere, as you’ve given me an indication that this book will be worth my time.