Note: I was called out last chapter for bashing prologues, so let me give a quick reminder/disclaimer. This whole essay is comprised of the ways I find most effective to write and read. And, as I said to my reviewer, I'm a prologue-disliker (not hater, just disliker). I even skip over prologues in published works because I can never figure out how they relate. Maybe that's my problem. Either way, just remember to take this essay with a grain of salt, and know that there are a lot of ways to mess up a prologue – there are a lot of ways to mess up anything, but especially prologues. Tread with caution. But to said reviewer: thanks once again for taking the time to leave feedback! Now, moving on.
As I said before, the first line/paragraph/chapter carries a huge weight on how a reader judges the rest of your story. So you want to make a good impression. In this section I'll be talking about first chapters, so fasten your seatbelts.
A first chapter should introduce character. As we all know, I'm a very character-oriented reader and writer. However, "introducing" is not doing any of the lame things I mentioned in the previous chapter (once again, if you think I'm wrong, prove me wrong. I'm open for this). Most of this goes back to what I said in the characters chapter about tension. It's one of those backwards, not-necessarily-intuitive things: you'd think showing a character in its natural habitat would give the best depiction of what the character is like, just like keeping monkeys in a jungle-like zoo exhibit is the easiest way to learn about monkeys. However, I'd like to offer that it's much more efficient to stick a character into a rather UNnatural habitat and see what happens – what happens when you put a monkey in the Sahara? Trying to figure out how a monkey normally behaves when all you have to base your inferences off of are its reactions to the Sahara involves a lot more critical thinking, but that's what readers love. Remember what I said about readers not being dumb? They like critical thinking. So characterize Joanne Woods and her fear of spiders by sticking her in a shower and seeing a spider crawling down the wall. It's much more interesting than having Joanne tell her diary about how much she hates spiders.
A first chapter should introduce the setting and premise of a story. If your story takes place in a fantastic kingdom in the land of Edjkdekxanvlad (I'll come back to that wonderful – aka terrible – name sometime or other), then you'd better make sure and communicate that. However, setting is based on your main character's point of view. Your main character knows only the parts of Edjkdekxanvlad that he frequents, though: the market, the tavern, the streets, the government buildings, and it all depends on his social status. Thus, there's no point in detailing the entire geography, political system, social structure, and religious entities of the country. Setting is very specific to a character's perceptions, particularly in the first chapter, which is the last place you want to deluge your reader with information that they don't care about.
A first chapter should be in the same style as the rest of the story. If you're going to write, write. There's no sense putting on airs for the first chapter and then letting your façade fall apart as you try to crank out chapters fast enough to keep your traffic stats looking encouraging. Your readers will be disappointed and annoyed. I read a story with an extremely good first chapter, subscribed to it, and was very irritated to discover that the rest of the chapters were riddled with grammatical and punctuation errors, poor writing style, and other… less-than-appealing things. If you don't think you're a good writer, it's okay. That's why this website exists. Letting your readers know up front that you may need some help copy-editing is way better than trying to impress them and failing miserably later on. (Of course, trying to write better than you think you can is the way to become a better writer, but, like in everything else in fiction, there's a delicate balance here. Most importantly, try to write better all the time, not just in the first impression categories.)
A first chapter should present a catalyst. A catalyst, in chemistry, is a chemical that you add to something to make the chemical reaction either start or speed up. In the same way, a literary catalyst is something that kicks your character off his couch and gets him motorcycling across the country with some hot girls. Or something like that. This usually comes at the end of the first chapter. A catalyst is something your character cannot escape. Whether it's something they're required to do, something they're pressured into doing, something they want to do to preserve their reputation, or whatever, your character cannot just say, "Eh, no thanks" to a catalyst. If they can, that pretty much means you have a lame catalyst. If you think your catalyst is really good, but your character can't decide whether to accept it, try beefing up your character's motivation so that they have no choice but to hop on the bus and travel across the country.
So, there are a few pearls of hopefully-wisdom on how to write your first chapter. A lot of times, people write their stories right up to the end, and after they're all finished, they just chop off the first chapter altogether. For amateur writers, I would lean towards saying that's a really good practice. Still, don't write your first chapter with the intention of lopping it off. That just makes it even more lame. And no one wants to be lame.
(Author's note: sorry if this feels a little disjointed - it feels that way to me because I haven't had much time to write it. It's been like half a paragraph at a time. Anyway, despite its possible non-cohesiveness, I'm hoping it has defined the first chapter a little more clearly. Thoughts? ~not Ross)