First Chapters

I had to make a tough decision relating to the first chapter of one of my WIPs. The story is written from a third-person limited perspective, and for a long time, the first chapter looked over the shoulder of my story's villain. I loved this because it gave the opening of the story an ominous feel. The exposition didn't feel forced because it's reasonable for the villain to discuss and work on his master plan, especially since he's "winning" at this point in the story. Comparatively, the hero of the story isn't such a reliable source for exposition as there isn't as strong a motive for her to give it; she's not even aware of the villain's plans. And finally, in this particular story, my MC is a bit beaten down at the beginning. She's isolated and a bit brainwashed. Because she has so little agency at this point in the story, it made sense for the villain to be the one to introduce her, rather than have her introduce herself.

Here's the problem with my method: Anybody - be it a reader or agent - who picks up the book is going to judge it within the first few pages. I don't expect them to feel invested in my villain and keep reading for his slimy sake, plus the story isn't about him anyway. But a wisp of a young woman suffering from Stockholm Syndrome probably isn't going to hook many readers either.

I discussed this problem with one of my fellow Big Sur attendees and she pointed me toward a video in which agent Lara Perkins discusses how to write a gripping first chapter. She reinforced a lot of things I already knew, like the narrator should be assertive and confident, but she also had some suggestions that hadn't occurred to me, like using a puzzle or a mystery in the first chapter. By raising questions in the reader's mind, you're compelling them to read onward and get answers to their questions. As an avid reader myself, I love this method. It's like creating a contract with the reader.

After watching the video, the solution to my problem was clear. I didn't want to start the book with a browbeaten protagonist; however, she hadn't always been browbeaten. Before she met the villain she was vivacious and lovely, the kind of person a reader wants to root for. So that's going to be my first chapter - how did the villain and the MC meet, and how did the MC get to the point where she is now? This seems logical anyway because I want the reader to know that the MC's behavior is not a reflection of her natural state. She wasn't always like that, and she's capable of becoming herself - becoming better than her original self - again.