No, not my Chapter One. Sorry if I got your hopes up, there. (Did I? I hope I did, actually.)
No, I mean Chapter Ones (or is it Chapters One, like attorneys general?), in general. What are the needs, what are the requirements of a novel’s Chapter One.
A lot of writers paraphrase Chekhov. In essence, If you hang a loaded gun on the wall in Act I, it must go off by the end of Act III.
A lot of writers (mostly newer writers) want the literary equivalent of a movie’s “establishing shot.” They want everything set up in Chapter One–characters, setting, conflict, subplots–everything.
For me, the best advice I’ve ever heard on how to build my Chapter One is this:
Shoot the sheriff on the first page.
Before I can explain why I think this is the best advice of them all on the topic, let’s explore the other two.
Chekhov’s quote comes in many forms, but my favorite version is this: “Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”
Why is this not good advice for Chapter One? First of all, it’s not advice intended for novelists; it’s intended as advice to playwrights. The pacing and segmentation of a play is radically different from that of a novel. A play generally has three acts, sometimes five; novels usually have many more chapters than this. Moreover, Chekhov was advising us to remove from the play anything that is superfluous as an aid in foreshadowing. Again, the techniques used in plays and novels are so dissimilar as to be almost no help. Foreshadowing is important, but it doesn’t have to begin in Chapter One.
The second item I hear from other (usually new) writers about what Chapter One should do. Frankly, I put the popularity of this advice down to a new generation of writers being brought up on formulaic cinema and the 47-minute TV drama instead of on reading actual novels.
The “establishing shot” is a slow opening sequence that sets the viewer in the time and place of the story that’s about to unfold. In the compressed art form of the cinema, this is often a way to start telling the story while the credits roll. It can set not only the scene, but the mood. But this slow, quiet sort of opening isn’t required for a novel. We don’t have credits to run over the first few minutes of our Chapter One. As with Chekhov’s advice, copying this technique from a dissimilar medium is unwise.
I understand the urge to “establish” everything, especially in an historical or genre setting, but it’s an urge that should be resisted. Giving in to this urge leads to exposition, “As you know, Bob” statements, scenes so full of characters that the reader doesn’t know who’s who, and–worst-case scenario–a prologue.
It is not the job of Chapter One to introduce the reader to every character, every bit of backstory, every detail of the setting’s time and place, and everything that led up to the opening scene going back three generations. It just isn’t.
So, what is the job of Chapter One?
Chapter One has one duty: engage the reader, get them invested in the story, and make them want to read more. To do this, the best advice I’ve ever heard is the one above: Shoot the sheriff on the first page.
It’s hyperbole, of course, but it’s sound. Get the conflict going. Nothing is going to capture the reader’s attention than conflict.
A fight. An argument. A crash. An element of surprise or suspense. Tension. Anger. Frustration. Thwarted desire.
Put a dozen guns on the wall and the reader will say, “Hmm.” Spend three pages describing the bucolic scene of a 18th century shepherd in a field overlooking a winding river with his cottage nearby where his wife is scrubbing clothes and, in the distance, the spire of a church and the ringing of the bell to celebrate the wedding of the manor’s eldest daughter, and you’ll lose your reader as fast as I lost you in this sentence. But put a couple on a street speaking in sharp, urgent tones; find an old wooden box while digging in the potato field; have a young man walking down a dark street, looking over his shoulder as he hears footsteps following him; do any of these things and the reader will immediately begin to identify with the characters and want to know what happens next.
Shoot him. Shoot him on the very first page.