Thursday, December 9, 2010

Can a First Chapter Be Too Exciting?

Chapter 1

Bill stepped away from the bomb and brushed off his hands. It would explode in a matter of minutes, but first he had to take care of Iggy walking around the corner. He was a bulky man with muscles like sacks of oranges stuffed under his skin. Bill took him on, chuckling the entire time. One, two, three blows. Iggy grunted.

"We'll both die in that bomb you set up!"

Bill grinned. "You will - I'll walk away laughing."

Iggy shoved an elbow against Bill's nose. A sickening crack. Warm blood gushed over his lips. Iggy would pay for that. With his adrenaline rising, Bill's moves came faster, more instinctual, until Iggy fell to the ground unconscious. Perfect.

Bill walked away. Beneath him the ground shook as the bomb exploded, hot and loud, a thunderous applause.

Chapter 2

Bill watched his wife from across the table. She was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen in his life, but that didn't mean he should say anything. She hated it when he said crap like that. He tapped the divorce papers on the table. His coffee steamed in a china cup decorated with purple pansies. Funny. Ellie's mother owned this cafe. She also painted the china. Funny.

"Are you certain this is the right thing to do?" Bill asked, still tapping the papers.

"Of course," Ellie growled, and picked up her cream cheese pastry. It remained a mystery how she ate so terribly yet remained so thin. Bill guessed it was her night patrol that shed the calories. Vegas had too many criminals to make her job boring and anything like a desk job. He, on the other hand, glanced down at his beer-belly gut and silently cursed his corner office with a view. Cushy chair.

"You know I still love you. I'm going to buy your breakfast and keep sending you checks for the kids."

"Of course you will." Ellie took a huge bite of the pastry, somehow managing to keep crumbs off her perfectly red lips. She chewed and swallowed and kept her eyes on Bill. It was in these moments he thought of a tiger sizing up its prey.

One of our readers, Justus, asked the question "Can a First Chapter be Too Exciting?" a few weeks ago, and I've been thinking about it for quite awhile. My novel Monarch begins with a fight between a spy and two FBI agents. There are guns and blood and excitement. It then moves to Chapter 2 where nothing more exciting happens than an inn-keeper serving her guests coffee and worrying about the rainstorm. She runs into the spy at the end, but that's at the end.

Obviously I don't think a first chapter can be too exciting, but I do think a first chapter runs the risk of leading your reader in the wrong direction. I run this risk in Monarch except for the fact that I introduce the inn-keeper briefly in the first chapter (who she is). Because I do this, the second chapter carries a question over for the reader: How are the spy and the inn-keeper going to meet again and what will happen?

It had better be something exciting!

A Promise
From my experience a first chapter should carry a promise, whether it's filled with physical tension, emotional tension, or some other clever kind of tension. That tension - whatever you set up - must carry over into the rest of the story. It might not be in Chapter 2 or 3 or 4, but those chapters had better start building back up to that tension you set up.

If your promise doesn't carry through at a reasonable pace, I'm going to think you threw in all that excitement in Chapter 1 only to hook me as a reader, and that's going to irritate me to no end. I'm going to greatly dislike you as an author because you tricked me. Readers don't like to be tricked. They like to be surprised, but not tricked. There's a difference.

The Base Ingredients
The main thing to remember is to keep your first chapter from sticking out like a sore thumb. It should fit into the rest of your story. I like to think of a first chapter like the base ingredients for a story. Everything starts there, and everything will branch out from there - or at least it should. By the time the reader gets to the end of the book that first chapter should shine! The reader should see things in that first chapter they didn't see before. The last chapter of the book will have ties back to the first. It all comes full circle.

So you tell me: How do the two chapter examples above work for you? Would you keep reading the story? Do they feel completely separate or connected? Is the first chapter too exciting?


  1. Very well written. I agree with everything you say except that I DO believe a chapter can be too exciting. Aside from the risks that you point out of breaking promises, I think there is a way to keep your promise but still have too exciting of a first chapter, though it would be difficult. As you said, the first chapter should give a peek into what the reader is getting into. Let's take for instance an action-packed first chapter. I don't think that the second chapter has to be action-packed at all. Too much action becomes fatiguing to read. But, the first chapter can't be more exciting than anything else in the book.

    I'm going to use a silly example but one that I think emphasizes my point. I didn't like Iron Man 2 for a similar reason. About half way through the movie, there is a great fight during a car race. The problem for me was that it was better than the huge finale. None of the "exciting" scenes to follow came close in my eyes to that battle. Therefore, the rest of the movie was a let down to me. When you see the main villain again after the big car race fight, he has nothing new to show us. Sure they have bigger explosions and such but the drama of it seemed underwhelming.

    All of that to say I don't think the second chapter needs to continue the action as long as the first chapter doesn't overshadow the rest of the book.
    Does that make sense or am I just rambling?

  2. GREAT post, Michelle! I agree with you 100%. I think whether we do it intentionally or not, the first chapter is setting the tone for the reader, including expectations of what the rest of the book will be. I get annoyed when that first chapter feels very different from the rest of the book unless there is something interesting about that juxtaposition somehow--though no example comes to mind.

    In your example chapters, I'd continue reading, but I now expect the book to be this mish mash of outer excitement and inner emotion in an almost silly way. In this case, I think both chapters are setting the tone and my expectations. If chapters 3-8 were only like one of the first two chapters, I would start to get confused.

  3. I agree that it's okay to start off a chapter with action as long as it's relevant to the pace of the story and takes the reader where they need to go. Bring on the fight scenes! :D

  4. Toughie. I don't think there is an excitement threshold. As you say, it's about setting the tone, making the promise, and making the reader want to see you fulfill that promise.

    I would continue reading both for a bit longer, but not for reasons of excitement of lack-thereof.

  5. Interesting post. To start, let's be clear: excitement does not have to be action. For example, a person in court receiving the death sentence can be exciting on an emotional level. A thief stealing a jewel in the dead of night can be thrilling and suspenseful, but without bombs and fighting.

    The only way to judge the relevance of the first chapter's content and tone is to look at chapter 1 in the full context of the rest of the book, but especially the transition into chapter 2.

    In the two examples above, I don't think they work together, but it's not due to the excitement and action, per se. I think there are continuity problems. In chapter 1, Bill's nose is bloodied with a "sickening crack" which implies a broken nose. I would expect to see some tie-in to that in chapter 2. He's unable to smell the coffee, something like that.

    Also, chapter 2 Bill seems out of shape, musing over his soon-to-be-ex wife's physique while failing to admire his own beer belly and cushy desk job. I see this as a bait-and-switch from the killer in the first chapter.

  6. I think you get at the heart of it with the idea of the promise to the reader. Sometimes, it seems, writers have written books that are not particularly action-packed but they want to have a "hook" and "grab the reader from the first word" and all of that, so they create a first chapter that's all explosions and blood and strong language that has nothing to do with the rest of the book, just on the hope that someone (say, an agent) will be sucked into the book by the action and will stick around and read the rest of the book even when it doesn't live up to the action and is really a different sort of book.

    That was a long sentence. Anyway, it's not that a first chapter can be "too exciting" per se, but it can be the wrong first chapter for the book in question. I also agree with Douglas Brown that in an adventure tale, the climax had better be more exciting than the opening of the story, so that's a problem with pacing or structure.

  7. Douglas: That's exactly what I'm saying at the end of the post, yes. I'm saying that it has to hold a promise of something bigger, more tense - a promise of what's to come. I agree that if the first chapter is the most exciting chapter in the book you've got a huge problem on your hands.

    Davin: Yay! I'm glad you liked the post! I like to do mishmashes, apparently, haha.

    Amanda: I love fight scenes! But I do think there can be tension in the smallest, most quiet of scenes, as well.

    Nevets: So what are you reasons to keep reading? I'm curious.

    Rick: Oh, I know about the action/tension thing. That's why I like the second chapter here because it's tense (to me), but not action-packed. I purposefully began chapter one with obvious tension and action for a reason because that's what people think of when you say action-packed.

    And yes, you picked up on the discontinuity of the first chapter to the second. It could be anything - years earlier, years later, etc., and there would either have to be explanation of that very soon after I cut it off or a revision of the beginning.

    We need a new term. Tension-packed. There we go. :)

    Scott: That was a great long sentence, and dead-on. :)

  8. I liked both but to me the second was better. The first one seemed more like a prologue to me, and the second seemed like the true beginning of the story.

    Now, if the ex-wife got elbowed in the nose and then blew up, that would get my vote!

  9. Hmmm...I had to go back and look at the headings. I didn't realize that the second exerpt was from chapter two I thought it was a different chapter one.

    I do think chapter one sets the tone for the book. There should be ups and downs all throughout the book. I think if we had read all of chapter one before we got to the begining of your chapter two we would have seen some sort of a lead in which would have blended the two better.

  10. If the first chapter is more exciting than the last chapter, you're in trouble. If the first chapter is so exciting it's in a more exciting genre than the rest of the chapters, you're in trouble. If the first chapter is so exciting, the second and third flop by comparison ... yeah. I suppose the main thing is a first chapter can't be too exciting if it still flows into the rest of the novel and doesn't stick out like a sore thumb.

  11. Charlie, I can see how someone would read it that way. I think your interpretation that the first chapter seems like a prologue deals with this same idea of the set up. We are trying to figure out the direction of the book, so the dramatic change in the second chapter makes us reorient.

    Sharon, That's a good point that there are ways to make these chapters work together, and a better transition might have done that.

    Shannon, I agree with you. There has to be some sort of match and continuity in there to make this work. I'd say it doesn't have to be clear what this match is in the first couple of chapters, but things should fall into place by the time the story ends.

  12. Okay, I guess I misread the exercise. Since the post was about first chapters, I thought Chapter 1 was First Chapter #1 and Chapter 2 was First Chapter #2.

    No, these chapters don't work well together to me, but it's not the level of excitement, it's that the voice and the writing style are so dramatically different.

  13. You wrote it on a day that I didn't read. You done did catch me! Hmm, I'll consider Douglas' thought that subsequent action shouldn't pale in comparison to the initial action. And Scott thought he was so clever opening with "Hamlet imploded hard, dude!".

  14. Very good point! I think there should be a balance between action and "too much" action, although I suppose that is slightly subjective. I personally like an intriguing opening, but not too frenzied of one. It makes me feel the writer is trying a bit too hard to be catchy.

  15. Nevets: That was part of the point I was trying to quietly make, yes. The fact that if two chapters don't "fit", it's not a good thing. These chapter don't fit to me, but I can think of many ways to make them fit - most of it nothing to do with the action.

    Justus: Yes, I was wondering where you were!

    Carol: I like intriguing, as well, but there is a different between intriguing and gratuitous action. Thanks for stopping by. :)

  16. The risk with a big action first chapter is that the reader doesn't know who the characters are yet. There's no reason to care about what's happening to them (yet) and, therefore, the action won't have the emotional impact it could have if delayed just a bit.

    (Reader thinks: So, someone I've never heard of, know nothing about, just got blown up. Meh.)

    In other words, it could be a wasted scene if done too early.

  17. I don't know about being "too exciting," but I believe a writer can work too hard on the hook and consequently make Chapter One look silly or melodramatic.

    My approach to Chapter One is, Why Am I Starting My Story Right HERE?

    What's changed in the protagonist's life, situation, or desire that makes starting the story at this particular point relevant?

    Then show that and proceed from there.

  18. Anne: See, that's an excellent point! Love it. :)

    Corey: Great approach, yes. I think it's important to start the story in a logical spot that works for the story, not just as a commercial hook.


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