How Do First Chapters Work?

Rabih Alameddine’s novel I, the Divine is a novel told entirely in first chapters. As a reader, the whole-novel-as-first-chapter concept put me in an immediate state of: What do I have to follow here?

(The answer is: Sarah’s life. It wasn’t as difficult a read as I thought it would be. Alameddine flows the first chapters together so gracefully that Sarah’s story is a mosaic – broken, but you still get the full picture.)

As a writer my brain went: Does it work? Why? And

What’s the purpose of a first chapter?

In his blog post The All-Important First Chapter, writer Nathan Bransford says that “the first chapter is a promise to the reader. It tells them what kind of story they’re going to be getting, and what to expect.”

And, ya know, technically, in Alameddine’s first first chapter (yes, you read that right) he does promise the readers that they’ll be reading about Sarah, her life, and her relationships. But what’s interesting is that you could open up any of Alameddine’s first chapters and understand the same thing: that you’ll be reading about Sarah, her life, and her relationships. 

In one chapter, you learn about Sarah and her first boyfriend; in another, you learn about her second husband; in another, her grandfather or an AIDS patient or her mother…and so on. Technically, Alameddine promises in each of his first chapters – regardless of POV, tense, or length. 

According to Bransford, the first chapter should also set up genre – and I think genre is the secret to why this book works like it does: it’s very literary. If Alameddine meant to write a high fantasy or a romance novel or a mystery, he couldn’t have done this.

This is a story about a woman’s life and relationships. In a real person’s life you can start anywhere. And I think that’s one of the points Alameddine is trying to make: there is a promise made at any point in a person’s life.

This promise is tied to something else Bransford says readers should know by the end of the first chapter: “have a good sense of who (what type of person) the main character is, and how their world is changing.” In a real person’s life, any moment can tell you who that person is. In a real person’s life, any moment can change the trajectory of their life. Their world changes.

So, Alameddine’s book is a crash course in how first chapters can work. If you’re stuck and don’t know how to start your story, here’s a few pointers inspired by Alameddine’s I, the Divine:

1. Set your chapter waaaaay earlier than you think is necessary for the story. Conversely, set your chapter waaaaay later than you think is necessary. Can you make either/both work?

2. Write a few first chapters – some long, some short; some in first person, some in third; some in present tense, some in past. Mix it up. See what feels right for the characters and the book. It’s just the first chapter – it’s playtime.

3. Keep the setting and main character in place – but mix up who the side characters are. Let them interact with your main character. How does that change things? How does it bring out different sides to your main character? At the very least, you might get an important scene for later down the road.

But, most importantly and regardless of genre, you have to pick the key moment. The moment the world shifts.

Do you guys have tips for first chapters? Or any chapters in between?

2 thoughts on “How Do First Chapters Work?

  1. I've never heard of this book before. I wonder if I would enjoy it — or if it would bug the heck out of me? Do you have to read them in order, or will any order do? (If they truly are all first chapters, then you could do it in any order, right?)

    As for me, I've rarely had trouble knowing when to start. I may have made some mistakes now and then (I can think of one in particular), but I always know how I want my story to start.

  2. You know, Dianne, I was thinking of reading it backwards. Kinda like a Choose Your Own Adventure. Should work in theory….At first I thought it would bug me way more than it did. It actually added a bittersweet note to her life, if that makes any sense.

    I don't make many false starts either. Generally my opening image is the image that convinced me to write in the first place.

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