Let's Talk About Chapter Ones
Chapter ones are always my favorite part of a story to delve into as it is the most important chapter in a novel. It's the first thing the reader sees and provides the opportunity to introduce your story, its characters, and recurring themes or motifs. It's also a great place to start "training your reader". Chapter ones have been on my mind a lot lately as I've been struggling with my own chapter one. I recently challenged myself to finish up my first chapter and submit it for a contest this month but I'm struggling to get this piece where I want it to be. To help me get inspired for my own chapter one, I wanted to get some thoughts down about what chapter ones are for and what they are good for.
The implicit promise is essentially the contract you and your reader enter into when they begin the story. You are starting the story in a way that promises the reader a specific story. Failing to deliver on the implicit promise is what often leads to pissed-off readers. This contract is implied and though you may imply the story is a story about a princess falling in love with a prince, that doesn't mean you can't subvert that expectation along the way and still deliver on that implicit promise. However, when you promise one type of story and fail to deliver that type of story, your readers will feel like you didn't deliver your end of the bargain and will have trouble trusting you again -- think the Game of Thrones finale.
For a novel, the implicit promise is usually established in the first chapter of the novel. By the time you finish the first chapter, you should have an idea of what type of story you are reading. You understand the rules of this world and get an expectation of how the story is going to be told. The following items I will discuss are all related to this implicit promise and all contribute to it as a whole. Think of the implicit promise as your thesis statement, you don't need to write it out explicitly but you should be able to see that promise hidden within the contents of your first chapter.
The first chapter is also a great place to start introducing your readers to some of the main and reoccurring themes in your novel. Recently in a book I read, they set up one of the main themes in the very first sentence of the novel but it wasn't something that I noticed until going back for a re-read. Theme works well with repetition and establishing it early that way the reader knows that it's something that they need to look out for as they read along. The first chapter is a good place to start doing this as the reader is taking in so much information in the beginning that it will most likely go unnoticed, but they will still have absorbed the information, and when it is later repeated it will seem familiar. When you see something repeated, that immediately sets off alarms in your head that this is something you need to pay attention to.
As a science fiction writer, this is a concept I think about a lot. Even if you aren't writing a complex alien world, you still need to set up your world. There are elements of your world that may be unique to your book that you'll need to call out. You can build up the world in broad strokes, with subtle details here and there, or using a combination of both. Chapter one is a blank slate. The reader comes in with some expectations of their own but for the most part, they are ready to be molded and told what this world is like so the ability to suspend their disbelief is highest when they first enter the book. If you plan to have a wacky story ahead, the first chapter is a place to establish this as an expectation for them to have. Take the time to get the reader nice and comfy in this world which includes the setting, the current situation, existing conflicts, and, of course, introductions to at least some of the main characters.
It may seem obvious that you should use chapter one to introduce characters but when you have a novel that covers multiple characters, how do you know which character you should start with? This is something that I've struggled with while writing this novel with multiple perspectives so I'm still not sure I have the right answer. What I can tell you is that I think the best character to introduce your novel is the one that has the most knowledge of what's going on both within your novel and without. What I mean by that, especially when writing a sci-fi world, it's good to have a character that can help bridge the gap between your readers and the alien world. They should appear familiar to the reader and they should also understand the world in the novel to the extent that they can function within it but maybe they are a bit of an outsider to this world so that they can help explain things that may confuse the reader. You can use the first chapter to build this character and set up the expectation for how characters will be built and introduced later on in the novel.
Training Your Readers
Chapter ones are where you begin to train your readers. What I mean by that is that this is the chapter where you set the readers' expectations not just for the plot or characters but for the way you will write and tell the story. You're setting the tone and the pattern that will continue for the rest of the novel. For instance, you start to notice after reading a novel that there is a certain pattern to each chapter. You come to expect the pacing and sentence structure that the author is using. Then, you start to expect that pattern to continue. And what's cool about establishing a pattern is that when you break it, the readers will notice and it will tell them that they need to pay attention.
There is so much more to say about chapter ones but I'll leave it at that for now.