Anatomy of a thriller’s great first chapter

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Today’s post is the first in a series over the next few days about what makes the first chapter of a thriller novel great versus boring. I’ll point you toward a fantastic first chapter, which is online for free. It’s from THE TWO DEATHS OF DANIEL HAYES, the new novel by Marcus Sakey, one of the amazing young thriller authors out of Chicago who are on the vanguard of crime fiction today. I’d like you to read it and then come back here to discuss it with me. In a series of posts, I’ll break it down from an author’s point of view and tell you what I admire about it.

First, a few of my observations about first chapters of thrillers. Few places are the writing stakes so high. At every step of publishing, it’s what will get an author’s work considered or discarded. First an agent, then an editor and finally a customer

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browsing in the bookstore will read the first several paragraphs of the first page and decide whether she will give the story a chance or put it down and head to the next one. Because there are dozens and hundreds of next ones.

What makes writing a great first chapter so hard is that there’s so much work to be done:

  1. You have to bring a main character or characters onstage
  2. To the reader, these are strangers, so you have to give us some some sense of who and what sort of people these are
  3. You have to make us care about them, make us fear or loathe the villain and sympathize with the victim and root for the protagonist
  4. You have to introduce us to the (or at least a) setting for the story
  5. You have to give us a sense of what the main plot of the story will be
  6. You need to raise story questions, or have the reader ask, “But what about?” or “Could it be that?” or “How did he get to this point?” or “How will he get out of that?” that make it impossible for the reader to put the story down without getting those questions answered. As a rookie, the temptation is to explain all these questions in the first chapter so the reader doesn’t feel lost. But the key to a thriller is that the reader feels satisfyingly lost/unsettled/unsure the whole way through the story and knows that the author is expertly leading him toward the answers the reader needs
  7. You have to crash a plane or make something else momentous happen to thrill the reader in the moment and derail the lives of your characters, setting the story into motion.

These goals fight with each other. The key is not to do too much characterization — just enough to accomplish 2 and 3. Questions about characters — who they are, what they’ll do — qualify as story questions that propel the reader forward into the book. You must ruthlessly eliminate details that don’t accomplish any of these goals. For 100 drafts of BOOK OF FACES, my first sentence mentioned a man’s “BMW 535i.” I couldn’t figure out why that sentence clunked each of the 100 times I read it until the hundred and first time, when I read it aloud: “his bee emm double-you five thirty five eye.” On the page it looks like two syllables, but in your mind, it’s 10. I realized it is important that he’s in a BMW, because it shows his affluence and sense of personal security, which is about to be shattered. Which particular model is not worth five syllables in the precious first sentence.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at Sakey’s choice of details, and I’ll show you how he chooses ones that accomplish three or four goals at a time. So head over and read his great chapter. (R-rated content typical of a crime thriller). Feel free to stop after the second section which ends, “cranked the ignition and pulled away” — if you can.

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This article has 3 comments

  1. Jacque Duffy 07/11/2011, 6:32 pm:

    Why has it taken me so long to trip over your blog? I enjoyed it and found it absolutely stimulating. I will most definately be back for more.

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