I reread a lot of first chapters from my book collection for this topic. It was fun to figure out the kind of things that did and didn’t work. I imagine this is going to be a very helpful Top Ten Tuesday for writers–both to make their own list, and read others’.
1. His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik – The story begins at the end of a battle–Laurence and his men have just captured a French enemy ship. We get a good sense of Laurence by how he judges the characters around him, regardless of whether he chooses to show it or not. And then he gets thrust into an unexpected situation by a very special piece of cargo on his newly captured ship…
This opening so compelling because Laurence himself is pretty impressive. He’s disciplined, he tries to keep a handle on his emotions, and he tries to keep a handle on his crew. When his life is turned upside down, he tries to hold on to his discipline and his duty, even as he faces losing what he has.
2. Wolfblade by Jennifer Fallon – This book introduces us to the bloody politics of the country from the perspective of someone unfortunate enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. He’s a slave, and no one is concerned him getting caught in the crossfire. His desire to try to escape even in his helpless situation, and his warring conflict with himself over who he can and can’t realistically help, do a good job of drawing a reader into the story.
3. Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey – The first chapter introduces a protagonist living in a world where beauty is highly prized and where she might have been beneficial to her parents if not for a single flaw marring hers. Still, our protagonist is not bitter. She might wonder at the things that made her life turn out as it did, but she doesn’t ask for a different one. The first chapter also demonstrates the depth of description in the writing, and the detail of the worldbuilding.
4. Queen of the Amazons by Judith Tarr – A seer arrives to name the newborn daughter of the Queen Hippolyta. With one look at the child, she announces that it has no soul and cannot be named. The rest of the chapter hints that this is for a reason, enticing the reader to stick with the story, to find out what the reason is.
5. Mystic and Rider by Sharon Shinn – I’ve been kind of in love with the first chapter of this book for years. It’s told from the perspective of an inconsequential character, a tavern owner, as he encounters the protagonists. He gives his impression of the characters, deftly using his attention to detail and experience to come the wrong conclusions. It’s fun to see the truth unfold into something so different from what the tavern owner imagined. I definitely felt a gleeful satisfaction as our characters played off his expectations.
6. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern – The very beginning, a kind of prologue, is all about the circus itself. It describes how the circus would feel to a spectator, mysterious and exciting. It draws the reader into this fantastic experience. The first chapter proper begins with a memorable sentence: “The man billed as Prospero the Enchanter receives a fair amount of correspondence via the theater office, but this is the first envelope addressed to him that contains a suicide note, and it is also the first to arrive carefully pinned to the coat of a five-year-old girl.” This book’s intro is not in a rush to explain, and it gives readers plenty to want to know more about.
7. Touch of Power by Maria V. Snyder – Avry is a healer, and her kind are put to death. The first chapter starts out simply; she’s in hiding, and there’s a sick child. If she heals the child, and anyone finds out, she’ll be executed. Avry is easy to like as our protagonist. She’s tired. After three years on the run, who wouldn’t be? So she’s tired, she’s practical, and she’s entitled to a little cynicism. But beyond that, she’s never lost that core of compassion that ensures she’ll always heal someone, sooner or later. All that comes through in the first chapter.
8. Wolfskin by Juliet Marillier – There’s a tragic story told in this chapter by one of the Norse warriors to his peers, a character admired by the protagonist. The story has a questionable theme, which is addressed more thoroughly throughout the novel–this one story in the beginning does a good job of introducing the theme in a way that hits the reader. I just have to feel sock at this being a value, a virtue, of any society.
Along with setting up the culture and values, a core relationship in the story is formed in the first chapter, between the protagonist and a boy who’ll become his friend. I’d love to talk about the whole book, but that isn’t the objective here. So I’ll say that the beginning captivates readers with little hints of something insidious, something wrong. I want to see the story problem resolved, right from the start of the book.
Outside of books, special mention has to go to Battlestar Galactica, for having possibly the best pilot episode I have ever seen. It was immediately captivating and pulled me in to the world, making me care about the characters. Even though they were all sleep deprived.