Back in the day (and by "in the day" I mean a few years ago), many books on writing pitched the idea of having a killer first chapter. Now, people want greatness quicker, right this instant, NOW. Screw the first chapter, we want to be hooked on the first page, the first paragraph, even first sentence.
Well, how do you do that, you might be asking.
A big chunk of it comes from your literary brilliance, obviously. However, another chunk comes from where you decide to begin your story. Many people think to start their stories from the very "beginning" of everything and follow a logical, chronological flow. Now, that's fine if that's the best way to tell your story, but if you're looking for a way to begin your story that will create the biggest punch for the reader earlier on, then consider thinking about all that goes on in your story and selecting a scene that creates that punch and pulls the reader into your story. What this mean is you will probably have to play with the movement of your story, working on flashbacks and flashforwards, etc., so that you can create a first page, a beginning that is strong enough to pull your reader in and at the same time, not feel "added on" just for the sake of intriguing your reader...only to deflate them in the rest of the story. It's hard work, but it can be done. It is done, every day; there are a lot of books out there to show you that this is true. Take some time to peruse some of your favorite novels, to check out new novels. How do you like the first page? The first couple of pages? The first chapter? Where are the authors starting their stories, and how might those "starts" add to the strength of the story overall? It might even be interesting to ask how might the story have been different if the story started in another way.
Bernice McFadden is my favorite author, and her novel Sugar has been on my top ten fave books since it was released over ten years ago. I was hooked on her book after the first line, but the first page is even more stellar:
JUDE was dead.
On a day when the air held a promise of summer and people laughed aloud, putting aside for a brief moment their condition, color and where they ranked among humanity, Jude, dangling on the end of childhood and reaching out toward womanhood, should have been giggling with others her age among the sassafras or dipping her bare feet in Hodges Lake and shivering against the winter chill it still clutched. Instead she was dead.
She'd been taken down by the sharp blade of jealousy, and her womanhood-so soft, pink and virginal-was sliced from her and laid to rest on the side of the road near her body. Her pigtails, thick dark ropes of hair, lay splayed out above her head, mixed in with the pine needles and road dust. Her dress, white and yellow, her favorite colors, was pulled up to her neck, revealing the small bosom that had developed over the winter.
The murder had white man written all over it. (That was only a half truth.) But no one would say it above a whisper. It was 1940. It was Bigelow, Arkansas. It was a black child. Need any more be said?
No one cared except the people who carried the same skin color. No one cared except the parents who had nursed her, stayed up all night soothing and rocking her when she was colicky. Applauded her when she took her first steps and cried when the babbling, gurgling sounds that came from her sweet mouth finally formed the words Mamma and then later, Papa.
The first sentence alone kept me keep reading, but each sentence after it layered itself upon that short, simple, "need to know more" sentence. In just this one page, we are invited to partake in the time period of the story, the type of people who live within the pages, the setting, the layer of pain that lingers over the black folks in the story, etc. It opens the story for the reader much like a wide shot at the beginning of a movie encapsulates place, time, setting before coming in close to the characters in the movie. What's interesting is the very first character we meet is already dead, yet she lives, like a ghost throughout the entire story, floating through the lives of her parents and the people of the town. The majority of the book takes place 15 years after Jude's death, so McFadden could have cut the beginning and started well after the death, detailing Jude's death later in the story through exposition and flashback, but it would have changed the entire story in a drastic and (for me anyway) negative way.
We need to be able to see our stories in such a way that we, too, can draft a first page that evokes as much of the story's essence as McFadden does.
And we can.