I went to the bank a few months ago and stood in line behind a woman who was a low income couch potato whose social life revolved around her fifty cats.
How do I know that?
What I do know is that the woman in front of me was overweight, her hair was yanked up in a sloppy ponytail, her accent was what most southerners instantly recognize as "redneck", and she wore cheap gray sweat pants with GIANT cat paw prints embroidered aross her generous backside.
Now, it's very likely that this is a warm and wonderful woman who was simply having one of those days. Maybe she has six children, another two she's taken in from a sick relative, and she's lucky to have made it out the door. Maybe the only clean garment she had at the time was the awful pair of kitty-paw-print sweats her great Aunt Mildred gave her for Arbor Day. Probably she was on the way to serve soup to the homeless.
Most people would never get past her initial appearance to figure that out because first impressions are tough to overcome.
Chapter One is your novel's first impression - your one chance to hook your reader into your story. Don't ruin it by choosing what requires the least effort from you.
Your first chapter should:
1. Introduce your main character: "Introduce" is not a euphemism here for "give the reader every last detail". "Introduce" is code for "seduce the reader into rooting for your m/c".
2. Plunge your reader straight into the action: "Action" here is not a euphemism for "conversation whose main goal is to establish background or give story details". "Action" is code for "action". As Miss Snark always used to say, give me a flaming corpse on page one and you've got me.
3. Set up the conflict: You don't have to deliver the whole ball of wax in chapter one. You do, however, need to give me a sense of the stakes and a reason to keep reading.
4. Ground the reader in setting: I've devoted an earlier post to this so I won't rehash in detail. Suffice it to say that you can ground your reader in setting with a few well chosen sentences sprinkled throughout the chapter.
5. Enchant the reader with your Voice: From paragraph one, your reader should be drawn in by your unique Voice. If your chapter reads "flat", start re-writing until you nail it.
Avoiding the Paw-Print Bottoms:
Don't open your novel with anything that screams cliche. You can read through Agent X, Kristin Nelson, or the Query Shark to find a more comprehensive list of the types of openings to avoid but here are a few to get you started:
Don't begin with:
*a long inner monologue involving mundane daily details
*someone driving to work/school/church thinking about their day
*conversations between two characters that don't instantly generate conflict
*long descriptions of the weather (unless, of course, the weather is your villain)
*a group of characters doing nothing important
*Do you spend too much time on painting the scene and not enough time making your reader care about who's in the scene?
*Are you aware that your novel has a slow start but are hoping that since it picks up by chapter five, your slow beginning won't matter? (Agents aren't going to read to chapter five if you can't hook them on chapter one!)
*Does your m/c stand out in chapter one as unique, interesting, different...something to make me want to turn the page and see what happens to her?
*Is your conflict either a)unique from other books on the shelves or b) a fresh take on an old idea?
Your first chapter is what will grab an agent's attention, bring in the requests for more, and later, what will seduce a reader into buying your book. Pull out all the stops. Re-write, re-write, re-write until your first chapter is a tightly written, fast-paced showcase of your Voice.
Your readers don't need every detail in chapter one. They just need a compelling reason to keep reading.