A reader walks into a bookstore. Spies an interesting book. What does she do? Picks it up. Flips to the first chapter before anything else. At least, that’s what I do. (Then I smell the book and rub it on my bare stomach in a circular motion and make mmmmmm noises.) Or, if I can find the first chapter online somewhere — Amazon, the author’s or publisher’s site, your Mom’s Myspace page — I’ll read it there. One way or another, I want to see that first chapter. Because that’s where you grab me by the balls or where you push me out the door. The first chapter is where you use me or lose me.
2. FASHIONABLY LATE TO THE PARTY
Bring the reader to the story as late you possibly can — we’re talking just before the flight leaves, just before the doors to the club are about to close, just before the shit’s gonna go down. Tension. Escalation. Right to the edge of understanding — no time to think, no time to worry, no time to ponder whether she wants to ride this ride or get off and go get a smoothie because too late, you’re mentally buckled in, motherfucker. The first chapter is the beginning of the book but it’s not the beginning of the whole story. (This is why origin stories are often the weakest iterations of the superhero tale.)
3. THE POWER OF A KICK-ASS KARATE CHOP OPENING LINE KIYAAA!
A great first line is the collateral that grants the author a line of intellectual credit from the reader. The reader unconsciously commits: “That line was so damn good, I’m in for the next 50 pages.” I could probably do a whole “list of 25″ on writing a strong opening line, but for now, I’ll say this: a good opening line is assertive. It’s lean and mean and cares nothing for fatty junk language or clumpy ten-gallon words. A good opening line is a promise, or a question, or an unproven idea. It says something interesting. It shows a shattered status quo. A good opening line is stone in our shoe that we cannot shake. Writing a killer first line to a novel is an art form in which there are a few masters and a great many apprentices.
4. THE GATEWAY DRUG TO THE SECOND CHAPTER
I’ve been to multiple Christopher Moore book talks, and each time he reveals something interesting about storytelling (and, occasionally, whale penises). At one such book talk — and this is me paraphrasing — he said something very interesting and a thing I’ve found true in my own reading experience: the more the reader reads, the more you can get them to read. Sounds obvious, maybe. But it goes like this: if you get them to read the first page, they’ll read to the second. If they can read to the first chapter, they’ll at least finish the second. If they read to page 10, they’ll go to 20, if they read to 40, they’ll stay to page 80, and so on and so forth. You’re hoping you can get them to the next breadcrumb, and as the novel’s story you space out the breadcrumbs — but early on, those first breadcrumbs (in the form of the first chapter) are in many ways the most important. Did I mention Christopher Moore knows a lot about whale penises?
5. YOUR PROTAGONIST HAS ONE JOB: TO MAKE ME GIVE A FUCK
If I get to the end of the first chapter and I don’t get a feel for your main character — if she and I are not connected via some gooey invisible psychic tether — I’m out. I don’t need to like her. I don’t need to know everything about her. But I damn sure need to care about her. Make me care! Crank up the volume knob on the give-a-fuck factor. Let me know who she is. Make me afraid for her. Speak to me of her quest. Whisper to me why her story matters. Give me that and I’ll follow her through the cankered bowels of Hell.
6. GIVE HER THE TALKING STICK
I want the character to talk. Give me dialogue. Dialogue is sugar. Dialogue is sweet. Dialogue is easy like Sunday morning. And dialogue is the fastest way to me getting to know the character. Look at it this way: when you meet a new person do you want to sit, watching them like Jane Goodall spying on a pair of rutting chimps from behind a duck blind? Or do you want to go up and have a conversation?
7. CONFLICT IS THE KEY THAT UNLOCKS A READER’S HEART
Yeast thrives on sugar. Monkeys eat bananas. I guzzle gin-and-tonics. And conflict is what feeds the reader. Begin the book with conflict. Big, small, physical, emotional, whatever. Conflict disrupts the status quo. Conflict is drama. Conflict, above all else, is interesting. Your first chapter is not a straight horizontal line. It’s a jagged driveway leading up a dark mountainside — and the shadows are full of danger.