Corroding the First Chapter
Can a goofy first line impair the entire first chapter? In a subtle way?
Anything can happen, Will Dando thought, in the next five seconds, in the next five years. Anything at all.
He tipped his beer up, finishing the last... (The Oracle Year, Soule)
That first sentence looks flawless, right? Definitely true. Philosophically wise. But that scene is about how he does know the future – he predicts the outcome of a football game. The whole book is about how he knows 108 things that will happen.
Is this just another wrong first line? Ho hum?
The first line is just misleading. But let's think about this. If I kept it in mind when reading the first chapter, it could have led me to read the chapter expecting one message, when the message was exactly the opposite. That would have made it difficult for me to understand where the author was going with things; everything would have been just a little off.
The facts are, I didn't like the first chapter. Happens. I set down the book, intending not to read it. But I ended up coming back to it, only because I needed something to read and I was desperate. Unexpectedly, I liked the rest of the book.
So, why didn't I like the first chapter? I think it's because the author misdirected me; I can't see anything else wrong with that first chapter.
Suppose, in a movie, two people are talking and a psycopathic killer with a knife appears in the background. You wouldn't pay much attention to what the two people were saying; you wouldn't think their conversation was very important.
I'm going to be hit by a car in four hours... (There Will Be Lies, Lake)
It's logical that this spoiler minimized the importance of what I was reading before the accident – I was directed to organize the story around the upcoming accident, and nothing in the start was as important as that accident. Also, several times I incorrectly thought she would be hit, which gave me a feeling of dread, which didn't match the main character's feeling. So I was detached from the main character.
Size of the effect is unknown. The facts are, I read up to the scene were she is hit by the car (five short chapters), then set down the book, not intending to read any more. Then one night I had nothing else to read before bed, so I restarted the book, and I really liked it. Looking back, the start was the type of thing I typically enjoy reading. That should sound familiar.
The war in Zagreb began over a pack of cigarettes. There had been tensions beforehand, rumors of disturbances in other towns whispered above my head, but no explosions, nothing outright. (Girl at War, Novic)
In retrospect, I think that first chapter had a "slow reveal" of the war coming on, as seen through the eyes of a young girl. I should have liked that kind of start. But I was looking for a dramatic start to the war. And I was confused by the cigarette scene, because it started no war.
I happened to start reading more of this book, never intending to actually read it, but I liked it and read the whole book. So there was nothing objectionable about the topic, the author could write well, it was just that first chapter again.
Good Evidence or Just Opinion?
It's easy to objectively document that first lines are disproportionately out of chronological order, wrong, and spoiling. The point here is more of a speculation – that a first line can be wrong in the sense of misdirecting the reader about the chapter, or eclipsing less important events in the chapter, perhaps impairing as much as the whole chapter.
I know that sounds unlikely. If it had happened in only one book, or if that didn't have a plausible explanation, I wouldn't have mentioned it.
But it is plausible &ndash the author might, one way or another, put out an expectation for the reader, and the reader might interpret events based on that expectation.
If that was true, an author would have to be very careful about putting out expectations. A philosophical start should be followed by a story that supports that philosophy, with the reader trying to interpret the story that way. Perhaps a hook gives a reader a focus; if so, the author should make sure that the story is about answering whatever issue is on the reader's mind because of the hook.
Readers will be especially attuned to messages on the first line. And that is where authors are most likely to give messages, in their attempt to be interesting. But that is where authors are least likely to play attention to the delayed effects of what they are writing.