Ok. First chapters. They are vitally important to grip your reader. I have been seeing lots of Pins and Tweets and Blogs recently about first chapters and how to make your first chapter a great one. Having read these posts I have begun to question just how good my opening chapter is… and have been moved to do some research of my own.
This post is going to be ‘live’ and by ‘live’ I mean that I am about to embark on a bit of a read, dissect and blog cycle. My plan is to read the opening chapters to some of my favourite books which are the first books in a series, make notes as I read, and then try and understand what makes these chapters good opening chapters.
It’s going to take a good while to do but I think it will be worth it. Hopefully this insight will help me amend my opening chapter…
Let’s start with:
HARRY POTTER AND THE PHILOSOPHERS STONE
Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.
I love the thank you very much. It’s so British.
POV – not Harry! It couldn’t be; he’s a baby.
‘our story starts’ / ‘How very wrong he was’ – author’s voice interrupting narrative, but cleverly.
Full of intrigue. The mystery is set up straight away – what is going on?
A whole new world – Muggles, weird names, weird clothes, a villain introduced. It’s done in a way that makes all these new things easy to accept and understand.
It’s actually quite funny! And obviously I’ve read it many times, but this chapter brings with it such a sense of nostalgia.
THE HUNGER GAMES
Part 1 – The Tributes – good word – sets the tone straight away.
When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.
Simple but effective. Who sleeps on the other side? Where have they gone? Why didn’t they come back to bed? Are they alive or dead? These are grim stories of a grim world. This is quite a grim sentence.
POV – 1st person: Katniss – you’re really inside her head. It’s so easy to see her world and feel what she feels. Interestingly there are a lot of words like rebellion and rise-up as early in as the first chapter. Never too early to foreshadow the rest of your series apparently.
This is such a bleak opening. Its real poverty and real hunger. The Hunger Games are mentioned (very early on to have the book title mentioned) and described so the reader can explicitly understand. Although, it was a lot of info and strange names all at once. And the first chapter ends with Prim being chosen. That’s a lot all at once!
A quote. Beyond the Silvering Sea… The language used here is very specific and really sets it apart from usual prose.
The door shivered.
Personification. I like it. It’s a very detailed description, almost like a close up in a film before the camera zooms out and the characters barge in.
Thieves. A big old house. Smoking, farting and swearing. There are a lot of pop-culture references (‘By the power of Greyskull!’) which is encouraging. I also like the banter between two of the thieves.
And there’s a great little speech about society today – very Jezza. He says things like ‘it’s Genesis all over again and we’re cocking it up a second time’ which will hold more meaning as the books unfold. So here, more foreshadowing.
‘fierce daylight bleached its way in’ / ‘the skin that clad it’ / ‘rags of light’ Love these!
I’m on Sheila’s side straight away. You feel what she does. You actually wonder why she’s there… she could do so much better than this.
It feels dark. Like it could be a ghost story. But there’s that quote… You’re really not sure what this story is yet. The main body of the chapter is so different stylistically to the quote at the start. The two seem to have nothing to do with one another – that’s intriguing.
This book starts with a small explanation of the different worlds in the book and also how to pronounce ‘daemon’. Interesting.
John Milton quote – fitting and a very adult concept.
Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening Hall, taking care to keep to the one side, out of sight of the kitchen.
This is a very simple sentence. It would be ordinary for a child protagonist in a YA novel to take ‘care to keep to one side, out of sight’ but the inclusion of the word ‘daemon’ turns this sentence into anything but ordinary.
‘anbaric light’ / ‘naphtha lamps’ quite difficult for a younger reader. Also all the different tiers of servants, who have different names, different titles, different daemons, which also have different names… complicated.
‘shiver of cold surprise’ like that.
Lyra is brought to life here. So is Lord Asriel. They are the stand out characters. You understand so much about them and so soon. Plus there’s the promise of war.
Matt Freeman knew he was making a mistake.
Now I like this one. This character we don’t know yet knows he’s enacting something which is wrong. The title of the book doesn’t have the main character’s name in it, so here it is for all to learn.
He’s an outsider and indeed described as one. Already I like him. In this first chapter, Matt finds himself in a bad situation that just gets worse and worse. But we are on his side. We know he’s the guy that doesn’t want to do wrong. The crime that happens is shocking too. It’s a big thing in the first chapter to have your main character involved in the stabbing of a security guard.
‘After all, for as long as he could remember, people had been walking all over him.’ Clearly the author’s voice but not so far removed from the story that it’s alien in the text.
Horowitz’s style is very matter of fact. He doesn’t slow the narrative down with loads of description, but there’s enough description to get the point across. The story comes first.
OK, WHAT HAVE I LEARNT?
Each one of these first chapters is so different to the next. Obviously they each have to welcome the reader and introduce them to the main character and the world they live in.
In HP, Harry is introduced by multiple characters around him. He isn’t even in most of the chapter, but because his name is in the title of the book, Rowling could afford to hold his entrance a bit longer. The reverence that the whole of the magical community has for him is evident before he is put on that doorstep, and is emphasised with those three mighty characters looking down at him (of course I’m talking about AD, MM and RH). There is a sense of dislike implied towards the Dursleys; anyone who wants to be that ‘normal’ is not normal. And growing up with them, well, we are already rooting for Harry!
In HG, you are in Katniss’ head. Collins is able to put across all of Katniss’ thoughts, fears, opinions, emotions just by typing them. I think this is one of the secrets of The Hunger Games’ success. It’s also liberating to read Katniss’ thought process. The way she questions herself and why she’s feeling the way she does. She’s a carer and provider, but a bit of an outsider. She is very easy to like straight away (even if throughout the book she is described as anything but! Then again, those characters can’t read her thoughts). There’s a lot of info to get through in this chapter before Prim is chosen. I wonder whether I would have waited to tell that info in chapter 2, or would have held off the Reaping until chapter 2. But it’s dramatic and you’re full of dread reading those words. The description of the Hunger Games and the history of Panem are so matter of fact which is brutal. But they are a lot to take in.
In DJ, the main character is unclear although Jezza holds your attention. By the end of the chapter you are on Shelia’s side. The feelings she has towards the house are what I felt as the reader; but it’s almost as if the main character in this chapter is the house. We open with the door shivering and we end with Sheila looking at the house and muttering ‘don’t you look at me like that’. She describes it as a ‘graveyard for dead houses’ which is a fantastic description. The characters are thieves; they’re criminals – hard to relate to. But that house, well, something tells me that that house/Jarvis are holding a few surprises deep in its/his creepy innards.
In NL, you are right there with Pullman and Lyra in that cupboard. She’s strong willed and opinionated. And a rebel! Bending the rules, getting into scrapes… She has her daemon to talk to which really brings you into her way of thinking. It’s almost as if the daemon is the conscience, the voice of reason or indeed the reader. But she defies us anyway. She stamps her foot down and chooses her own path, as wrong as she knows it is. But let’s put this into perspective, she’s snuck into a room that she shouldn’t have. It’s not like what Matt goes through…
In RG, you’re on Matt’s side straight away because he knows he’s wrong. His situation gets worse and worse and it just spirals. Horowitz puts across Matt’s thoughts and feelings very succinctly and indeed the story shines through. You get glimpses of his history and what has led him here, but it’s not bogged down with info. What’s happening to Matt now is what’s important. And you feel sorry for him. You know he’s made a mistake and he’s been caught. Now he has to answer for the crime that he did commit. Again he is an outsider. ‘He wasn’t part of it. He never had been – and he sometimes thought he never would be’. These sentences switch from the author telling us about Matt, to the author telling us what Matt thinks. Horowitz also uses italics when communicating Matt’s thoughts and these are in first person which sucks you right in.
All of these writers have very different styles. Each of these chapters are very different things, with very different characters at their core. But in essence they all do the same thing. Is there a right or wrong way to start a book? Are there good or bad ways to introduce a character?
Now to turn my thoughts onto my first chapter.