The latest genre in my series of Chapter 1 Analyses is horror. Rosemary's Baby was written in 1967 by Ira Levin, and was made into a hugely successful movie. It is a supenseful supernatural chiller set in a modern city with a cast or urbane characters. It is not an out and out blood and gore type of story, but it is horribly effective at getting under the reader's skin.
It is quite short at 195 pages. Chapter one is about 8 pages. There will be spoilers.
The opening lines are:
Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse had signed a lease on a five-room apartment in a geometric white house on First Avenue when they received word, from a woman named Mrs Cortez, that a four-room apartment in the Bramford had become available.
The opening is not particularly scary. In fact the whole first chapter is about the couple trying to get out of their lease and move into the Bramford. The actual story doesn’t start until they become residents, and the novel could easily have opened with them moving in. So why didn't it?
Even though there are some subtle details to give the opening a slightly unsettling vibe, these are only obvious if you’re looking for them (they include a man with fingers missing, the previous tenant who died, a blocked off closet which turns out to have nothing in it except a vacuum cleaner, and a mention right at the end of the chapter of gargoyles on the outside of the building). They add a mild spookiness, but on their own they aren’t enough to convince you this will be a terrifying read.
Most of the chapter is light, witty and about typical modern concerns (for that time and for now). They’re a young couple who want to live in a cool place, and they’re willing to lie a little bit to get what they want. No harm, no foul, right?
So, how will the reader know what kind of story they’re reading? What will make them wait to see if things get interesting? Where’s the hook?
First, there’s the stuff outside of the book. Reputation, reviews, the book jacket, even the title hints at the kind of book it is. Quotes on the cover and inside the jacket say things like:
...so fiendish it made me sweat...
...the most unnerving story I’ve read...
...it is a terrifying book...
Marketing works, and the hyperbolic type clearly works best of all. I think once readers are confident something worthwhile is up ahead they relax and are patient with an opening. This gives the writer time to ease them in with less exciting moments which enable him to establish setting, characters and relationships, and also set up contrast with future events. If things go crazy later, you need to show them normal first, otherwise there’s no frame of reference.
How does this help a new writer trying to impress an agent/publisher who is unlikely to read more than a couple of chapters? In most cases they push for an immediate plunge into action and complain about slow starts (I suspect because it means more work for them), but I think a well-worded pitch highlighting the genre and the direction it’s going in will help, maybe even with a little hyperbole?
I think there are basically two goals here. What the book is about, and what the chapter is about. The book is about the scary stuff of a normal couple in the middle of a coven of witches, a pregnant woman becoming paranoid about the safety of her baby, and the lack of anyone to turn to in a big, bustling city.
The chapter is about an average couple trying to get out of a contract so they can move into the coolest building in Manhattan. Although this is not very scary, it is interesting. More so because it’s made very clear they’ve signed the papers and they can’t get out of it. She wants the new place, he says they’re stuck with the old place, what she wants is impossible, THEN he makes it happen.
That I think is the hook. To set up a goal, clearly indicate there’s no way to achieve it, and then show how he gets it for her. And in doing so reveal his character.
“You see how you can think of thing?’ Rosemary said. ‘You’re a marvellous liar.”
Which beautifully foreshadows how he manipulates and deceives her into fornicating with Satan. Ah, young love...
So, foreshadow the big plot, but construct a clever and satisfying small plot. Don’t have the characters hanging out at the start of the book just chilling, have them doing something specific, that’s hard to do (in fact the more seemingly impossible the better), and then have a character do it in a revealing way. Oh, and get some fantastic quotes for the book jacket.
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You can find more Chapter One breakdown in the Chapter One Analyses page. Other genres covered are Crime, Thriller, MG, YA, Romance, Transgressive. Books include The Hunger games and Harry Potter.
My own wip is up at Critique Circle now. If you are a member please give it a look (Planet Janet in the Horror queue). If you aren't a member but have a manuscript you'd like feedback on, you should seriously consider joining.