The first chapter of any book is critical. It sets the stage for everything that comes after it. Tone, setting, point of view, and main characters are all established within the first few pages. Personally, I revise these pages more than any other, which is why I appreciate the first chapters written by other by others.
One of my favorite first chapters comes from Lou Berney’s November Road. It’s a master class in openings. It’s so perfect that when I read it the first time, I went back and reread it two more times before moving on to Chapter 2. This isn’t a knock – I definitely got hooked and couldn’t wait to read more. It’s just that the first chapter packed such a wallop, I had to go back to study it. The third time was just for fun and when I went on to devour the rest of the book.
I’ve been told quoting another author’s work here could be a potential legal quagmire so, instead, I’ll just explain why this book is my go-to reference on how to open a standalone novel. I also encourage you to read November Road, if you haven’t already.
It’s obvious Lou Berney is a jazz fan (so am I). The opening pages introduce us to the protagonist, the New Orleans setting, and the time period with such a palpable tempo, you can practically hear a wire brush on cymbals. The world building is so complete, I remember exactly where I was when I read it because I felt transported. There’s such confidence in this opening chapter, I knew I was in solid hands as I embarked on the characters’ journey with them. What so amazed me (and why I had to reread it) is how well Mr. Berney pulls this off. The experience feels organic. It could easily have come off as contrived but it doesn’t. There’s nothing self-conscious, gimmicky, or coy in these pages.
I’ll share a few more of my favorite first chapters this week. What are some of yours?
Thank you, Robin. I’ve been talking to my class about good first chapters and I think I’ll send them your way.