It is pretty obvious that most publishing houses ask for the first three chapters of your novel to evaluate if the novel has enough zing to propel the reader on. What’s not obvious is, what exactly is the publisher looking for in those first 3 chapters?
Having been on the other side of the table assisting some editor to make the ACCEPT or REJECT decision (I say assisting, while in most cases I was merely nodding along) I know what ticks them off and what gets them mildly excited (yeah, I have never seen one of those guys jump up and exclaim “this is good!”)
I dedicate this post to the mild excitement and the first thing on your checklist.
Within the first chapter we must have an introduction to one of the 3 main characters.
The 3 main characters in any novel are the protagonist, the antagonist, and what is known as the catalyst or the lynchpin. Not all novels have all three.
A lot of novels start with the protagonist. Romantic novels start with the hero or heroine and then they go on to meet their other half thereby completing the couple. A lot of murder mysteries and whodunits start with a case coming to our detective or cop. It’s fairly straight in structure and highly recommended for first timers. Writing from this starting point also establishes what is known as point-of-view and the protagonist’s point of view is a fairly easy one to maintain.
Though it’s non-fiction, Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestseller “Eat, Pray, Love” due to its narrative structure could easily pass for an example to uphold this point. The story starts with the protagonist and within the first page tells us who the protagonist is: “professional American woman in my mid-thirties, who has just come through a failed marriage and a devastating, interminable divorce, followed immediately by a passionate love affair that ended in sickening heartbreak.”
This is why it is crucial that you talk about the protagonist within the first three chapters, even if not in the very first chapter. The reader has a right to know what the story is going to be about.
The lynchpin or the catalyst as a starting point is also a good start point provided you know what to do with the catalyst once he/she has served their purpose. A lot of whodunits start with the murder or death of the victim and the investigation or events flow from it. The event (death or murder) or the victim can act as the lynchpin or the catalyst bringing the rest of the cast into the space of the novel. In John Grisham’s “The Chamber”, the story starts with the lynchpin, the character Marvin Kramer is the Lynchpin. The ‘radical 4th generation Jew’ takes up a major part of the first chapter and his failed assassination sets in motion the rest of the story, set years later. The lynchpin could also be an event. It can be argued that Marvin Kramer’s failed assassination and not Marvin Kramer, is the lynchpin. Starting with the lynchpin or catalyst is quite popular and it also provides the story with the HOOK. The HOOK is the exciting incident that, you guessed it, hooks the reader and compels him to read on. More on that later.
A much lesser used and understandably less popular starting point is that of the antagonist. The first reason for the lack of popularity is that starting with the antagonist is a technique that lends itself only to certain genres and structures. A thriller could start with a diabolical serial killer so the reader knows what the hero is up against. While starting with the antagonist is OK, it rarely does justice to the reader or the writing to not immediately also introduce the protagonist. After all it’s the protagonist you want your readers rooting for. The antagonist as a starting point is also really tricky, it’s a fine balance between creating a formidable villain and one that overshadows the protagonist. Of course, if you have a villain as the protagonist, you have little choice here. The example that jumps to mind is Patricia Highsmith’s classic “The Talented Mr. Ripley”.
The idea is very simple. Your first chapter could start with anyone or anything of those three, but do find your principal character and tell me straight off about him or her. You have three chapters to do it.