The Gamer’s Guide to First Chapters

I reached the end of a project last weekend, and one of my rewards was finally picking up a few video games I’ve been saving for myself. It’s something I love but don’t have a lot of time for. There are always things that come higher on the priorities list, such as writing, reading, health and caring for a rambunctious Labrador. Because my time is limited, I’ve found I have little patience for a slow opening. If I can’t figure out the controls right away or have to wade through 30 minutes of boring in order to get to the good stuff, I won’t play on.

I have a feeling the same is true for your average reader. We’re all time poor, and any activity that requires a certain amount of solitude and focus can be hard to schedule in. For most people, reading means knocking other things off the list, such as socializing or exercising or showers. People only allocate a finite amount of time to reading, and this means writers have only a finite amount of space to hook their readers. Maybe a paragraph. Maybe a page. Or (if you’re lucky) all the way to the end of the first chapter.

One thing my favorite video games do well is hook me in right away and keep me playing. It’s not an easy task. The first “chapter” of the video game is a tutorial that teaches you how to play and gives you all the skills you need to get through the rest of the game. It’s important, but unless it’s handled well, it can also be incredibly boring. We want the real story to begin!

Novels face the same challenges. The first chapter of a book pulls a lot of weight. It sets up the world, introduces the characters, establishes a tone and a voice, and gives the reader a strong idea of what they’ll be facing throughout the rest of the story. All this, and it still needs to hook the reader. Only the most patient reader will struggle through a boring beginning to get to the good stuff, just as only the most dedicated gamer will make it through a weak tutorial to play the entire game.

Because I can’t do anything without comparing it to my own craft, I’ve come up with a few ideas on what successful and unsuccessful video game tutorials can teach us about writing the perfect first chapter:

Introduction of rules and mechanics:

The central purpose of a game tutorial is to introduce the rules and mechanics of the game, or at the very least, this first section of the game. A gamer (especially the casual kind) is just as likely to get frustrated by being unable to understand the game controls as by a slow beginning. The same is true for a first chapter.

A few decisions you have to make upfront:
– Who is speaking (first person or third)?
– Are they telling a story that has already happened (past tense) or are they telling the story as it happens (present tense)?
– When is the story set (historical/future/present day)?
– Where is the story set? This should be clear right upfront.
– Genre: If you are writing a fantasy, there should be at least a hint of magic in the first chapter. If you’re writing a thriller, there should be tension. If you’re writing a mystery, there should be an unanswered question.

The goal here is twofold: clarity and brevity. Get in and get out without the reader ever knowing you were there.

Character:

Character is just as important in a video game as it is a novel, and the best tutorials set this up right away. In Alan Wake we discover in the first scene that Alan is a writer who is tortured by nightmares about his characters seeking revenge for their untimely deaths. In Uncharted 2, we begin with Nathan Drake injured on a train hanging off the side of a snowy mountain. It is clear from the outset that he is an adventurer come on hard times.

Who is your character? What would best express this, right up front? The Scorpio Races, which is about a girl who enters a deadly horse race against carnivorous water horses, begins with Puck saddling up her pony and racing her brother to the beach. Puck is defined by her love for her horse, and that is where we find her at the beginning of the story.

A microcosm of the story at large:

I touched on this when I mentioned genre above, but I think it deserves a little more attention. A good first chapter, like a good game tutorial, is an introduction to the larger story. We should know immediately what kind of game or book we are about to experience. Alan Wake and Uncharted do this really well, but not all game tutorials are created alike.

An example of a game that does this badly is Heavy Rain, an otherwise brilliant game. The tutorial stars with the main character waking up. He goes to the bathroom. Shaves and brushes his teeth. Wanders around the house for a bit. His wife comes home and he takes out some plates. This goes on for awhile.

What kind of game do you think this is going to be? Certainly not the film noir thriller it turns out to be. The very next scene shows the main character losing his son in a crowded place and it introduces a lot of the tension that was missing from the tutorial. This is how the game should have started.

The same is true for your novel. Begin as you mean to go on. If you’re writing an action story, begin with action. If you’re writing a character piece, begin with voice. If you’re writing magical realism, the world needs to feel a little bit strange right from the first chapter. Your first chapter is your ambassador for the story. Let it be a good representative for the rest of the novel.

Immediate immersion:

This is where tutorials and first chapters rise and fall. Sure, the purpose of the tutorial is teaching you how to play the game, but the more this feels like a learning experience, the less interested the gamer will be. The best games hide their tutorials in story. Take Uncharted 2, which is the game I’m currently replaying, so it’s freshest in my mind. Nathan Drake wakes injured on a train hanging off the edge of a cliff. Right away, the character is thrust into action. He needs to climb back up the side of that train and shoot a bunch of bad guys on the the mountain before he can get his bearings and figure out what’s going on.

A good first chapter teaches you about the story by putting you in it. You should feel like you’re right there with the character, dodging explosions or racing a horse or finding a dead body on the side of the road. Of course, not all stories are thrillers. Anna and the French Kiss begins with Anna arrival at her new French boarding school and meeting the people who will change her life over the course of the next year. Harry Potter begins when strange things start happening in Harry’s town, and to Harry himself. The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, if I remember correctly, begins when the pants in question are first purchased and their magical properties discovered.

You’re shoving a whole lot of things into the reader’s head right away, but they shouldn’t be aware that this is happening. All they should be aware of is story and character and how much fun they’re having.

So, go forth! Write brilliant beginnings! Keep me up to 3am because I just can’t put your story down.

Begin as you mean to go on. (And play video games).

The beach is pretty in winter.
The beach is pretty in winter.

 

The Gamer’s Guide to First Chapters