I'm going to take the first chapter of a successful novel and break it down to see how the author hooks the reader, what information he feels is necessary at this point of the story, how he approaches things like POV, character and voice.
The book I've chosen is A Kiss Before Dying by Ira Levin (Rosemary's Baby, Stepford Wives). A 237 page, tightly written suspense thriller, it is a commercial novel but with many unconventional touches, extremely well plotted with some very clever twists and turns. It was his first novel, which is also one of the reasons I chose it. Chapter One is just over four pages long.
There will be the spoilers.
Chapter 1 starts with these lines:
His plans had been running so beautifully, so goddamned beautifully, and now she was going to smash them all. Hate erupted and flooded through him, gripping his face with jaw-aching pressure. That was all right though; the lights were out.
On the surface this gives a very clear indication of his mood. In fact it tells the reader directly that 'he' is angry and blames 'she'. The writing is visual and the last line gives a nice sense that he's hiding his feelings, but in many ways this would seem to be a overly 'telling' start. But as we'll see, it isn't.
The next paragraph starts with: And she, she kept on sobbing weakly in the dark, her cheek pressed against his bare chest…
Now it's clear she's there too and that they're in bed, in the dark, having had sex and she's upset and he's pissed off.
… Her tears and her breath burning hot. He wanted to push her away.
So far it's very clear what each character is feeling, maybe even too clear. But it turns out the writer is doing this for a very specific reason because when the character finally does speak...
"Crying isn't going to do any good," he told her gently.
...he is the complete opposites of what we've seen of him internally.
So the opening line was 'telling' us he was angry, but that wasn't what the author wanted to show us. By 'telling' us that, he is able to 'show' us the MC's duplicity. (I spoke about this in an earlier post (Show and Tell) where I discussed how show and tell isn't as simplistic a device as might first appear, and how you can use telling to show, and vice versa).
What he does by using this technique is create suspense and dramatic tension. We know something that she doesn't. Every time he speaks kind, comforting words we know he's lying and up to something. This is a key requirement of suspense, that knowledge of events isn't equally distributed. And it is also important that information is revealed as early as possible to exploit the tension to the fullest. Once it's been established it doesn't need to be mentioned again, everything the MC says is dripping with dramatic irony.
From the next section it becomes quickly apparent that she is pregnant. At first this seems to be a fairly standard 'two kids in trouble' set up. But after she tells him she's sure she's knocked up, he says:
"You didn't give the doctor you're right name, did you?"
And then after she tells him she didn't, he says:
"If your father ever finds out —"
So, the story starts with the guy angry at the girl. But he is very soft-spoken to her not indicating his displeasure at all, but very careful to find out who else knows about it. And he's especially concerned about her father finding out. The main vibe off the first page is of a duplicitous young man who is up to no good but a smooth talker who is managing the situation.
He shifted his position a bit, partially to give emphasis to what he was about to say, and partially in the hope that it would encourage her to move, for the weight on his chest had become uncomfortable.
There is something darkly comic about the way the author is presenting this man. He is allowing us to be completely aware of what a callous shit he is.
The next section is him convincing her that's having the baby would mess things up. Even if they got married her uptight father would disown her for being immoral and their life would be very hard. He very much emphasises that he is only concerned for her well-being. She of course doesn't care because she loves him and wants to be with him. He tells how terrible it would be, she tells him how she would handle it because of love.
"You're only nineteen and you've had money all of your life. You don't know what it means not to have it. I do. We'd be at each other's throats in a year."
"No, no, we wouldn't!"
Then he switches tack and gives a speech on how he had planned their lives would be. He paints a picture of married bliss with her father's approval.
She lifted her head from his chest. "What are you trying to do?" she begged. "Why are you saying these things?"
"I want you to see how beautiful, how wonderful, it could have been."
So what we have is a battle between two opposing desires. He wants her to have an abortion, she wants him to marry her. But both sides want to appear reasonable and doing what's best. Eventually it comes down to this:
"We have to get married now! We don't have any choice!"
"We do have a choice, Dorrie," he said.
She resists at first, afraid of an illegal operation (this is before Roe v Wade), but he is an expert manipulater, both verbally and physically.
She gave a small terrified whisper, "No!" and began shaking her head violently from side to side will stop
"Listen, Dorrie!" he pleaded, hands gripping her shoulders, "No operation. Nothing like that." He caught her jaw in one hand, fingers pressing into her cheeks, holding her head rigid. "Listen!" He waited until the wildness of the weeping subsided. "There's a guy on campus…
She isn't sure but he soothes her with more visions of how they might live in a small apartment of their own, wearing her down. Her final hurdle is what if the pills don't work?
He took a deep breath. "If they don't work," he kissed her forehead, and her cheek, and the corner of her mouth, "if they don't work we'll get married right away and to hell with your father and Kingship Copper Incorporated. I swear we will, baby."
He had discovered that she likes to be called 'baby'. When he called her 'baby' and held her in his arms he could get her to do practically anything.
Even while he's trying to placate her the way he does it indicates what he is really concerned about.
The chapter ends with them sharing a cigarette and her taking it and waving the orange glow in front of him while whispering "you are my slave and completely in my power" in a playful way. But it is clear who is really the one in control.
So, this chapter establishes the characters, and it also establishes the dynamic between them. We also have a clear idea that there is a love story here, but not between the man and the woman, it's between the man and Kingship Copper Incorporated. What is also interesting is how the dialogue is always telling us stuff that isn't actually being said.
On the surface a man is trying to convince a woman that their lives together will be better if she gets rid of the child. That's a pretty general sort of scene that could occur in any relationship between people of this age. But there are layers of unexpected meaning to each of those conversations. Often he says the opposite of what he means. Or the phrasing betrays his true intent. And yet you couldn't use it as evidence against him.
It's interesting that th author revealed upfront that the guy was insincere and had ulterior motives. He could quite easily have just let the scene play out and let the reader slowly work out that he was up to something. But only by giving information can you create a feeling of dread and anticipation for what's going to happen. Often with novice writers it is assumed that less information will entice the reader. But it has the opposite effect, feeling coy and contrived. Part of the problem is that a writer already knows everything so even if they leave it out it still reads suspenseful to them because in the back of their minds the knowledge is still there. At no time in reading this chapter did I feel I knew too much and so wasn't interested in finding out how things turned out. In fact quite the opposite.
I think what I would take from the analysis of the chapter is that you have to give the reader as much information as you can. What will make the reader want to know more is the fact that the information is interesting and therefore promises that there is more interesting stuff to come. Often, I think, writers who are insecure in their storyline delay revealing exactly what the story is about in the hope the reader will become enamoured of the characters or the writing style and be more forgiving of the plot. But by and large people who can't write interesting storylines can't write interesting characters either. You have to put your neck on the block (and you have to accept that sometimes it will get chopped off).
This chapter is very much a genre piece and won't necessarily apply to all types of stories. But what it does show that I think is applicable to all genres is that language can say more than one thing at a time. Being economical with words but doubling up on meaning keeps pace and momentum high without feeling rushed. That sense of her believing what he says on face value, while we are aware of what his real intentions are, creates a very engaging dynamic between reader and author.
I also want to mention something that's quite unusual about this opening chapter. At no point in the entire first section is the name of the male character mentioned, although hers (Dorrie) is. This is done for a very specific reason. At the end of the first section he kills her (how he contrives to make it look like a suicide is quite brilliant). The second section is written from a different POV, that of Dorrie's sister who doesn't believe it was a suicide (the reason for this is also very clever). The sister meets a number of men any of whom could be the killer. By not giving us his name we the reader are also in the same position as her and can't tell which of the men it is. There's an added twist when she discovers who it is, just before he kills her. The third section is in the POV of the third sister. Guess who she just got engaged to...
The thing is, even though his name isn't revealed in the first section, I didn't even notice until I was in the second section trying to remember what it was. By having him so actively pursue his goal (to get rid of Dorrie) he becomes real in a way a name makes no difference to. It made me realise how an active character driving the narrative is engaging on a very deep level.
BTW if you would like to read the first chapter for yourself almost all of it can be read on Amazon (here).
What I might do next is choose another book of a completely different genre and see how the openings differ (or not). All suggestions welcome.