It seems very appropriate for the beginning of the year to be discussing how to write the opening chapter of a novel. I always imagine a new year as turning over the first page of a book – the adventure is all before us and anything could happen! And something nice already has happened, as I was honoured yesterday to attend the New Year’s meeting of Harpenden Writers to set their in-house competition entitled ‘Chapter One’.
The first chapter is a real challenge for any writer. It is as important as the climax of the book – even more so, because it has so many other jobs to do. As well as introducing characters, setting, the style of the author and the bones of the plot, the opening chapter also needs to perform a double wow – hooking the reader and also attracting the attention of agents and publishers. No wonder it can be so hard to write.
What are considered the greatest opening chapters in literature? It’s a hard list to make, but after sifting through my own choices, various opinions on the internet (most of which are based mainly on the first line) and suggestions from the Harpenden Writers, I’d suggest the following top ten in no particular order:
- The Colour Purple by Alice Walker
Celie is raped by her step-father. She relates the tale in her own matter of fact way. If this is what happens on page one then things are going to be tough for her and for us as readers.
- Enduring Love by Ian McEwan
A fatal ballooning accident kickstarts an obsessive relationship. Killer opening which some believe the rest of the book never quite matches up to.
- Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Mrs Bennet tries to persuade Mr Bennet to visit the new young bachelor in town and get him to marry one of her daughters. Deceptively simple, perfectly pitched.
- The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy
A man sells his wife at a country auction. Great example of a cataclysmic event which creates a stomping good plot.
- The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald
Nick has dinner with Tom and Daisy and hears of the existence of Gatsby. Eloquent, elegant, understated.
- 1984 by George Orwell
The clock strikes thirteen and Winston Smith is living another day under the boot of Big Brother. An immediate plunge into another world that is terrifyingly possible.
- The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
Huck’s unique voice pulls us straight into his story. After sketching out his new life with the Widow Douglas he is off for more mischief with Tom.
- David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
‘I am Born’ – the first chapter does exactly what it says on the tin.
- The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Starts as it means to go on – bleak, uncompromising, sad almost beyond words. Line breaks indicate changes – there are no chapters because the normal divisions of time have disintegrated with civilisation.
- Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
One page of gob-smacking prose which raises horrifying questions we simply have to know the answers to.
To help us identify what makes a great opening chapter, we examined the beginning of Pride and Prejudice. Giant hailstones rained down with a deafening clatter as I attempted to read aloud from my Kindle and I just hope it wasn’t divine intervention engineered by Jane Austen in response to my portrayal of Mrs Bennet!
It is a truth universally acknowledged that the first line by itself is in possession of every quality an opening chapter needs: the characters (single, rich man); the plot (fortune hunters are after him); the style (dry, arch) and the hook (so who will catch him). Few but Austen could pull this off in one line.
The rest of the chapter deftly places us at the heart of the story by showcasing Austen’s brilliant characterisation. We are introduced to Mr and Mrs Bennet and we understand their relationship and the inequality of their marriage. He has become a long-suffering husband who is reduced to scoring victories through quiet sarcasm, which she is a nag, a gossip and a social climber. Nevertheless, Austen loves them and we can see that in her affectionate treatment of their foibles. Impressively Austen also manages to introduce through the Bennets’ conversation no less than ten other characters! Of course we hear about the impressive Bingley and his four or five thousand a year, but we also learn that the Bennets have five grown up daughters, we hear the names and main character traits of three of them, we know which ones each parent prefers and we even have the first mention of Sir William and Lady Lucas as a rival family the Bennets need to keep up with. There’s also a couple of side characters thrown into to the gossipy mix. All this is done in so natural and deft a way that we happily throw ourselves into chapter two with a good basic knowledge of and fondness for the family.
We also have the bones of the plot in place: Mrs Bennet needs to marry off her daughters and she needs to act quickly before anyone else can pinch the best prize. We don’t know yet about the Bennet estate being entailed away on the nearest male heir but we do sense that the family needs outside help if it is to survive in the manner to which it is accustomed, and that there are various cumbersome social barriers that need to be broken through before this can be achieved.
The setting is quite starkly presented, but we do gather that this is a domestic scene and the beginning of the plot suggests the rest of the novel will probably stay in that sphere. It is obviously historical and of its time period, and the family are of middling wealth – rich enough to be looking for husbands rather than jobs for their daughters, but poor enough to be somewhat desperate.
The chapter also introduces Austen’s style: conversational, arch, humorous, affectionate, fast-moving and deft. We know what we are getting from the first line onwards: Austen’s voice is always true.
And finally, the hook. Are we pulled in by this chapter? Do we feel emotionally involved enough to continue? All the elements have been expertly put in place, so that anyone who enjoys this sort of novel will feel compelled to continue.
So there we have it: a model first chapter. We have the killer first line, the characters, the plot, the setting, the style and the hook, all done in an understated, efficiently brilliant way. For a complete contrast see the opening chapter of Lolita. And remember, if you want to analyse first chapters of classic literature most are now free on the internet, either through the Amazon Kindle store and other ebook retailers or through Project Guttenberg where you can read classics online or download them.
Good luck to the Harpenden Writers taking part in the Chapter One competition – I look forward to reading your entries and getting thoroughly hooked!