1. socialleper

    socialleper Member

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    Examples of the "perfect" first chapter

    Discussion in 'Book Discussion' started by socialleper, Apr 14, 2017.

    For amateur writers like me that want to get something published, a lot of fuss is made about the holy grail that is the perfect first chapter. It seems like the most brilliant piece ever will be destined for unpublished purgatory if it doesn't have a flawless opening.
    I struggle with this a little because I can't seem to identify with it. I don't read the first chapter of a book before buying it. I generally don't make up my mind about a book until I'm a good 100 pages in.
    I personally can't think of a "perfect first chapter" that was a make or break for me, so it is hard to study what makes one.
    To that end, I ask you, readers and writers, which books have what you think is a dynamite first chapter? If you had to show someone the apex of literature's opening paragraphs, what would they be?
     
  2. BayView

    BayView Huh. Interesting. Contributor

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    I'd say you need to let go of the idea of "perfect" in writing. There's no such thing.

    You just need something that will keep people reading. Something that grabs hold of the reader. That's going to be totally different from genre to genre (and from reader to reader).
     
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  3. socialleper

    socialleper Member

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    How about perfect enough to keep a publisher from throwing it in the trash or clicking delete?
     
  4. BayView

    BayView Huh. Interesting. Contributor

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    Well, any published book you pick up will have a first chapter that kept a publisher from throwing it in the trash or clicking delete...
     
  5. Homer Potvin

    Homer Potvin The game sour like a pickle be.... Contributor

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    I'd recommend "Hunger Games" for a good example of a first chapter. You can learn a lot about voice, back-story, and how to world-build without info-dumping. And for some reason "Fahrenheit 451" sticks in my mind too, though I can't remember exactly why. I think it's the opening paragraph where Bradbury describes the glee Montaugh feels when he burns things.
     
  6. BayView

    BayView Huh. Interesting. Contributor

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    And yet Hunger Games, as I recall, opens with the traditional bugbear of the character waking up and starting her day.

    I mean, I agree, it was an effective first chapter. But someone dedicated to writing a 'perfect' first chapter wouldn't have written it.
     
  7. Homer Potvin

    Homer Potvin The game sour like a pickle be.... Contributor

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    Yeah, I agree it ain't perfect, but it gets us where we need to be at exactly the right time. And given the rate our attention spans are devolving....
     
    Last edited: Apr 15, 2017
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  8. Dr.Meow

    Dr.Meow Contributor Contributor

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    This is the holy grail of openers, and it's alread been done...us lowly mortals may only try to come up with our own. However, even this is flawed in its own way, albeit "perfectly" so. It's one hell of a long sentence, and that's usually considered "bad", but it works when you know how to pull it off. I wouldn't stress about your opening sentence, paragraph, or chapter. Just make it good, and try to start your story at the beginning, so your readers can learn about your MC as the MC is learning about themselves. That's a bit vague, but it makes sense if you focus on telling your MC's story, because that's what you're doing, it's their story, so start at the first place that's the most important to learn about them.
     
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  9. OJB

    OJB A Mean Old Man Contributor

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    The hellbound heart by Clive Barker has a gripping first chapter. Read the first 20 pages of that book in a less than 10 minutes.

    The problem arises in what are you looking for in the first chapter? Everyone has different expectations when it comes to the first chapter, and each of us wants something different from our books. I love books deep in subtext, theme, and symbolism; others will want action and adventure. You might want to ask yourself what your target audience is before trying to figure out your perfect opening.
     
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  10. Mouthwash

    Mouthwash Senior Member

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    Harry Potter deserves a mention. But there's a special place in my heart for The Gunslinger:
     
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  11. Homer Potvin

    Homer Potvin The game sour like a pickle be.... Contributor

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    Hell, yeah! Forgot about that one. Nice call!
     
  12. socialleper

    socialleper Member

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    The first few chapters of Harry Potter made me never want to read the books. It may be technically right, but it is so syrupy and geared towards little kids that I couldn't do it.
    Interesting how that works.
     
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  13. Stormsong07

    Stormsong07 Contributor Contributor

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    I really like the first chapter of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. It has one of my favorite first lines: "There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it."
     
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  14. Wreybies

    Wreybies Thrice Retired Supporter Contributor

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    I would also add that there is zero guaranty that the first chapter the publisher reads upon receipt of the manuscript is the first chapter we read when we buy the book.

    This shows promise. I wonder when he's going to get to the actual beginning of this story....

    ... is a thought that I have to imagine has passed through more than one editor's mind since "editor" became a job.

    That said, to answer the question, the first chapter of Dhlagren by Samual R. Delany ranks right up there for me. It throws you into the deep end, story-wise and language-wise. It's a massive, dispassionate filter. You either get it, or you don't. And it doesn't care if you don't. It doesn't apologize or attempt to be inclusive. That might be the very definition of the opposite of the perfect first chapter for some, but there's an honesty about what's to come in this first delivery.
     
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  15. socialleper

    socialleper Member

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    That's pretty good. It made me laugh.
     
  16. minstrel

    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Apologies to @Dr.Meow, but the Dickens opening is, though memorable, not the holy grail of openings for me. I have read many I would consider better. Here are two:

    Kim, by Rudyard Kipling

    He sat, in defiance of municipal orders, astride the gun Zam Zammah on her brick platform opposite the old Ajaib-Gher—the Wonder House, as the natives call the Lahore Museum. Who hold Zam-Zammah, that 'fire-breathing dragon', hold the Punjab, for the great green-bronze piece is always first of the conqueror's loot.

    There was some justification for Kim—he had kicked Lala Dinanath's boy off the trunnions—since the English held the Punjab and Kim was English. Though he was burned black as any native; though he spoke the vernacular by preference, and his mother-tongue in a clipped uncertain sing-song; though he consorted on terms of perfect equality with the small boys of the bazar; Kim was white—a poor white of the very poorest. The half-caste woman who looked after him (she smoked opium, and pretended to keep a second-hand furniture shop by the square where the cheap cabs wait) told the missionaries that she was Kim's mother's sister; but his mother had been nursemaid in a Colonel's family and had married Kimball O'Hara, a young colour-sergeant of the Mavericks, an Irish regiment. He afterwards took a post on the Sind, Punjab, and Delhi Railway, and his Regiment went home without him. The wife died of cholera in Ferozepore, and O'Hara fell to drink and loafing up and down the line with the keen-eyed three-year-old baby. Societies and chaplains, anxious for the child, tried to catch him, but O'Hara drifted away, till he came across the woman who took opium and learned the taste from her, and died as poor whites die in India. His estate at death consisted of three papers—one he called his 'ne varietur' because those words were written below his signature thereon, and another his 'clearance-certificate'. The third was Kim's birth-certificate. Those things, he was used to say, in his glorious opium-hours, would yet make little Kimball a man. On no account was Kim to part with them, for they belonged to a great piece of magic—such magic as men practised over yonder behind the Museum, in the big blue-and-white Jadoo-Gher—the Magic House, as we name the Masonic Lodge. It would, he said, all come right some day, and Kim's horn would be exalted between pillars—monstrous pillars—of beauty and strength. The Colonel himself, riding on a horse, at the head of the finest Regiment in the world, would attend to Kim—little Kim that should have been better off than his father. Nine hundred first-class devils, whose God was a Red Bull on a green field, would attend to Kim, if they had not forgotten O'Hara—poor O'Hara that was gang-foreman on the Ferozepore line. Then he would weep bitterly in the broken rush chair on the veranda. So it came about after his death that the woman sewed parchment, paper, and birth-certificate into a leather amulet-case which she strung round Kim's neck.

    I love that. It's so colorful and exotic and richly-imagined that I'm mesmerized immediately. Sure, it's mostly exposition (info dump?), but I don't care. For his time, Kipling's prose was electrifying. I can't stop reading him. He's easily one of my favorite writers.

    The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain

    YOU don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth. That is nothing. I never seen anybody but lied one time or another, without it was Aunt Polly, or the widow, or maybe Mary. Aunt Polly – Tom’s Aunt Polly, she is – and Mary, and the Widow Douglas is all told about in that book, which is mostly a true book, with some stretchers, as I said before.

    Now the way that the book winds up is this: Tom and me found the money that the robbers hid in the cave, and it made us rich. We got six thousand dollars apiece – all gold. It was an awful sight of money when it was piled up. Well, Judge Thatcher he took it and put it out at interest, and it fetched us a dollar a day apiece all the year round – more than a body could tell what to do with. The Widow Douglas she took me for her son, and allowed she would sivilize me; but it was rough living in the house all the time, considering how dismal regular and decent the widow was in all her ways; and so when I couldn’t stand it no longer I lit out. I got into my old rags and my sugar-hogshead again, and was free and satisfied. But Tom Sawyer he hunted me up and said he was going to start a band of robbers, and I might join if I would go back to the widow and be respectable. So I went back.

    This is one of the greatest first-person openings I've ever read. Young Huck's character explodes off the page in all its undereducated, rambunctious, boyishly-charming glory. He's a little bit wild and a little bit wise, and Twain captures him unerringly. It takes confidence for a writer to attempt this kind of dialect, especially over the length of a novel, but Twain has confidence in spades. He was a master.
     
  17. Rosacrvx

    Rosacrvx Contributor Contributor

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    The more I think about it, the more I realise I don't care much for first chapters. I can't remember a single one. What I do remember are the dramatic passages and the endings. I choose books by the blurb / synopsis / recommendations. I consider the first chapter a warm up for what's to come. I'm a lot more interested in how it ends.
     
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  18. Seven Crowns

    Seven Crowns Contributor Contributor

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    "A Confederacy of Dunces" by John Kennedy Toole.

    A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head. The green earflaps, full of large ears and uncut hair and the fine bristles that grew in the ears themselves, stuck out on either side like turn signals indicating two directions at once. Full, pursed lips protruded beneath the bushy black moustache and, at their corners, sank into little folds filled with disapproval and potato chip crumbs. In the shadow under the green visor of the cap Ignatius J. Reilly's supercilious blue and yellow eyes looked down upon the other people waiting under the clock at the D. H. Holmes department store, studying the crowd of people for signs of bad taste
    in dress. Several of the outfits, Ignatius noticed, were new enough and expensive enough to be properly considered offenses against taste and decency. Possession of anything new or expensive only reflected a person's lack of theology and geometry; it could even cast doubts upon one's soul.
     
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  19. Spencer1990

    Spencer1990 Contributor Contributor

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    Love that one.
     
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  20. ritedood

    ritedood New Member

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    A story should start "in medias res," in the middle of things, not at the beginning.
    I suggest you look at "Beat To Quarters," also called "The Happy Return" by C. S. Forester. In the first few paragraphs the author puts his hero, British Navy Captain Horatio Hornblower, between a rock and a hard place, his ship thousands of miles from home having not touched land for seven months. And in unfriendly waters claimed by a world power as nasty as ISIS.
     
  21. matwoolf

    matwoolf Banned Contributor

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    Publishers didn't take to C of Dunces, and he killed himself.

    GG Marquez, Love In The Time Of Cholera was very nourishing in the introduction, like I was eating adult food, my pinky raised off the spine, possibly I pouted. But then haven't finished it yet, so (reaches for burger).
     

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