Originally Discussed: 12/16/14
My good friend and trusted advisor, Jessica Shen, an editor for Xchyler Publishing, sent me this piece from Chuck Wendig's blog about the many requirements a novel's first chapter must satisfy, and this was my reply:
I agree with the majority of this as-written; and I think I'd agree with all of it given some clarification and caveats. The overall thrust couldn't be more correct: make an impression, make something happen, and make me care. Modern audiences, even readers, don't have patience for scenes set before 'the Fire Nation attacks' anymore (Tolkien, Jordan, I'm looking at you). Prologues are similarly archaic, though in certain genres you can make a case for them, like fantasy epics, space operas, and anything with a large cast of POV characters (multiple-POVs complicate a lot of things). There's a lot I don't like about RR Martin, but killing off prologue characters works for A Song of Fire and Ice.
Baiting the hook and giving an impression of the whole are probably the two most important features, and the hardest to square with each other. You want readers to go "I never thought I would end up here," but not "this is not what I signed on for." The hook has to make you wonder, hint at what is possible in this universe. You don't want to spring wizards on people a hundred pages in, unless you implied that was a possibility from the first chapter.
I also don't think establishing the full scale of the stakes is as important for longer work but there needs to be a problem to be sure. Something pressing enough to keep going. You can start with a computer glitch that calls the already-tired IT guy back into work; the guy's job is on the line and when he gets into work, he realizes the glitch is actually a hack, and if you make him likable enough, you can get people to the next chapter. Then you reveal that the entire company has been wormed for months and introduce readers to other members of his team. The chapter after that, his team is implicated, and now a lot of people (the company, the company's clients, who are shadier than they appeared) are gunning for them.
Opening lines are hard as hell, and a good one will be remembered forever and quoted endlessly. And Wendig is dead on: keep it short. The most common plays I've seen are establishing voice in one line (Neuromancer), central conflict (The Dark Tower), or something that does not easily make sense by itself (Farenheit 451). The one thing I would add is that I think you generally need to get to the end before you know how to phrase your beginning to maximum effect.
In terms of take-aways for what I'm working on, it was a good reminder that I need people to care about my main character enough to want to spend time with him. He is less generic than my last book's guy, but he's also this pathetic embittered prick, and I am struggling with how to convey that while simultaneously showing he is worth fixing, even though it's a tall order. Something to keep in mind when I do my annual re-read of A Christmas Carol.