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.
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!
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?