Contrary to popular belief, I don't think a good opening chapter necessarily needs to have two superheroes making out in front of a nuclear explosion for it to work. I mean, don't get me wrong, it helps, but it's not the be-all-end-all of kicking off your novel with a bang.
There are three critical elements that I believe need to be established within the opening of a novel (usually the first chapter) in order for it to succeed and hook the reader in:
There are sub-elements to each of these that you're probably more familiar with hearing; phrases like "you need a hook" (conflict) or "you need to establish the setting" (tone), however I don't believe these pieces of advice drill down to the core of how to start off your story. What is a "hook"? And why do we need to understand the setting? I believe pretty much everything in a good opening chapter can be distilled down to these three elements I've listed. Keep in mind that this is advice for general storytelling -- explicitly niche and artistic titles may well flaunt these rules for various stylistic reasons, but they don't tend to care all that much about the rules of writing in the first place.
So! First off: Character.
Characters are the most important part of any story. I've talked before about us humans being creatures of emotion. Literature is a means through which to evoke emotion, and character is the vehicle through which this is accomplished.
We need someone to empathise with, dislike, fear, or otherwise form some kind of emotional response to. If there are no characters present within your first chapter (and remember, characters can be animals, robots, or aliens as well as humans) then people will have a hard time getting emotionally involved with the story. It's often tempting to write a chapter full of exposition and backstory to lay the groundwork for what's to come; a lengthy description of the setting, the society or the events leading up to the start of the novel, but if you don't have one or more characters in there somewhere it's going to get boring for your readers pretty fast. History and lore can only ever be interesting, but characters are what make it engaging.
Second on the menu we have conflict.
Conflict is usually encapsulated by something like that nuclear explosion I opened the post with. It's the spark that ignites the plot. The inciting incident. The call to action. If it's big and dramatic, then it's usually a sure hook. Despite my insistence on the importance of character in the previous paragraph, you can often get away with characters being pretty bare-bones in this segment if you have an emotionally charged conflict. Something like a death, a birth, a heated argument, a life-changing decision etc. come packaged with so much innate emotional engagement that they're all good candidates to get your reader involved with, even if they don't know much about the characters yet.
Keep in mind, however, that conflict can never be passive. Having something explode in your first chapter doesn't mean anything if it's just a meaningless explosion in the background. It has to be a force to be reckoned with, a problem for your characters to overcome; something that your characters actively strive against.
Finally there's tone.
This encompasses things like the setting, your writing style, the way characters talk, and so on. It's how your book feels, and it's important to establish this early on so that your readers know what they're getting themselves in for. Books can be comedies, romances, adventures, sci-fi, fantasy; they can be lighthearted, gritty, poetic, erotic -- it all comes down to tone.
The opening of a book will generally be what sells your audience on whether they want to read on or not, and it's important not to mislead them about the tone of your book at this early stage (if you look back at my reaction to The Final Empire you'll see a great example of a novel fudging up its tone in a big way). If your book's going to be dark, make sure we know we're in for a rough ride. If it's meant to be funny, make us laugh.
Do not, whatever you do, make us laugh out loud for the entire opening chapter before plunging us into a gruesomely hard-hitting vision of Nazi Germany by page thirty.
These three are generally my go-to criteria for a good opening, but let's look at a handful of my favourite books just to illustrate exactly what I mean:
The Hunger Games, a big favourite of mine for discussion on this blog, opens by introducing us to the life of Katniss Everdeen. We learn about her as a person, how she lives, and most importantly her relationship with her sister Prim. Character? Check.
We learn about the hard place Katniss has grown up in, along with the idea of the brutal Hunger Games and how they hang over the existence of the poor and impoverished citizens of Panem. Tone? Check.
When this chapter culminates in Prim being selected to participate in the Games, the spark that ignites the story flares brilliantly to life. Conflict? Check.
Secondly we have another of my favourite books that I've neglected to talk about as much as I should have on the blog; Jean M. Auel's The Clan of the Cave Bear.
In the opening chapter we meet Ayla, a happy young girl playfully swimming in the river under the eyes of her loving parents. Character? Check.
When a sudden earthquake tears the ground open, killing her parents in the blink of an eye, Ayla is left alone and helpless in the wilderness, isolated and at the mercy of nature. Conflict? Check.
And if all this wasn't already enough to let you know how dark the coming story is likely to be, we see Ayla struggling to survive as she deals with the grief of having lost her parents, with the very real threat of death looming ever closer as she presses bleakly on with little hope of rescue. Tone? Check.
Number three on the list, my all time favourite, Maia.
The book opens with us meeting the titular character, learning about her innocent and carefree nature as she passes the time away from her cloying family, swims in the lake, and generally shies away from responsibility. Character? Check.
The chapter culminates with young Maia's stepfather spying on her as she bathes naked, pleasuring himself in the bushes as he lusts after his stepdaughter. Conflict? Check.
Encompassed within these two characters is the idea of innocence coming into conflict with a dangerous and darkly erotic world; a sense of wonderment and adventure coupled with gritty reality. Tone? Check.
"But hey, Claudia," I hear you ask, "haven't you written stories too?"
I have indeed! While I wouldn't equate them to anything near the level of the examples above, I do try to follow my own rules when writing an opening chapter. Since I've recently published His Darkest Desire as a full novel, let's take a peek at that:
We're introduced to Nina, a young girl fresh out of college, ripe with ambition, but vulnerable and lacking in experience. Character? Check.
She's given a job by internationally renowned author Elliot Wolf as his typist, and the tense arrangement quickly progresses into something far more sordid than Nina expects, leading to a sexual encounter that leaves her confused and emotional about what Mr. Wolf wants from her (and what she wants from him). Conflict? Check.
The entire chapter is overtly sexual from the get-go, revolving around a slowly building tension and lust between the two characters that eventually culminates with an erotic climax. Tone? Check.
These three elements aren't necessarily a checklist you should should try to tick off like I've done above, but they're naturally occurring elements in the openings of most good stories. If you notice one or more is missing from your opening chapter, then it's probably a good idea to go back to the drawing board and reconsider exactly how the beginning of your novel is going to play out.
Conflict lets us know what's happening. Character makes us care about it. Tone lets us know what to expect reading on.
Character. Conflict. Tone.
Nail those three down and you have the bricks and mortar of a strong opening ready to build upon!