The first handful of chapters are absolutely critical in a novel; you need to introduce your protagonist, supporting cast, setting (both specific locales and more general background – more or less important if your story is set in a commonly recognisable time or place), introduce any MacGuffins that’ll drive the plot along and help set the themes for the narrative to come, plus throw in some red herrings so it isn’t plainly obvious what will or won’t be important by the end of the book.
Let’s take Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union as a quick example. In the first sixty pages, we get this;
Chapter 1. ‘Landsman’ is the main character. He lives at Hotel Zamenhof. He’s a detective, and investigating a suicide (murder?) there. The hotel is in a district named ‘Sitka’. The early 1940s are mentioned as a memorable time. Landsman has a partner named Berko. The dead person played chess – this has some resonance for Landsman. The landlord is introduced as a supporting character.
Chapter 2. Landman makes observations on the hotel and its surroundings. Landsman suffers from claustrophobia.
Chapter 3. More observations on the hotel’s surroundings. Two supporting cast members introduced. More information concerning the 1940s, shedding some (but not much) light on the comments in Chapter 1.
Chapter 4. Brief mentions of Landsman’s sister, ex-wife and boss. More investigation of the dead body from Chapter 1. Mention of underground tunnels and the books in the dead body’s room – are these red herrings or strong leads for the rest of the book?
Chapter 5. Landsman reminisces on his family life and chess. More explanation of how Sitka came to be (linking back in with references to the 1940s from earlier chapters).
Chapter 6. Landsman meets with Berko. A mixture of dialogue and reminiscing describes how their partnership operates. Information on Berko’s background and family. Landsman’s sister is mentioned again.
Chapter 7. Landsman and Berko go to the police station. The ex-wife, Bina, is introduced to the story. Landsman’s boss is written out of it. Importantly, Landsman is given a series of cases to resolve in a given timeframe. The suicide/murder is marked as a cold case.
Some early chapters are very tight – 3 or 4 pages, used to introduce a couple of key points and then move on – while others sprawl (Ch.6 is 17 pages) to slow down the pace and allow more background detail. After finishing these sixty pages, though, the reader can now assume what path the book will take: Landsman has been provided with a clear map of What To Do and When. We figure that Landsman has an interest in his cold case – it opened the novel, after all, and he’s clearly taken a greater interest in it than normal – meaning that if Landsman investigates any more, he’s breaking the rules and putting pressure on his ability to manage the What To Do and When. Already there is a conflict – and to make it worse, it puts him in direct conflict with his ex-wife. Elements that might assist or hinder are his personality, his partner, his ex-wife, his (now ex-)boss, his sister (cryptically hinted at twice), and the handful of supporting characters introduced to date. Also, what about his chess-playing skills – will they be important later on, or was that just used as a segueway to Chapter 5’s discussion of his family life? The history of Sitka may also be important, but it’s not yet clear if the detail given already is for background only or will have a driving influence on the plot. The underground tunnels under Sitka might be a good opportunity to play up Landsman’s claustrophobia, for example, but they could be a red herring.
Seven chapters for Raymond Chandler doesn’t get us as many pages, but The Big Sleep is a much leaner novel (220 pages in my copy, versus 411 for The Yiddish Policeman’s Union). So, I’ll just grab the first five chapters – 34 pages – as it gets stuck into the action a lot faster…
With a first-person narration, Chapter 1 introduces the tone of the character before we get a name – hell, we get his occupation and a jokey non-de-plume before we even get his surname. As well as meeting Marlowe, the protagonist, we meet Carmen Sternwood and Norris, the Sternwood’s butler. The ‘General’ is namedropped by the butler.
Chapter 2. We meet the General, observe a chauffeur, and hear about a bunch of other supporting characters: DA Wilde, Bernie Ohls the investigator, Rusty Regan the bootlegger, Joe Brody the blackmailer and Arthur Geiger the bookdealer. It’s not clear at this point if some, many or even all of these characters will make a reappearance later in the book. Carmen Sternwood’s character is fleshed out, and Vivian Regan is mentioned. Some shadow is cast on the butler’s character. Crucially to the plot’s advancement, Marlowe is given a task to perform – meet with Geiger and convince him not to blackmail the Sternwoods.
Chapter 3. Vivian Regan introduced. More mention of Rusty Regan. (Is this a red herring or the ‘true’ plot?)
Chapter 4. Change of location to Geiger’s bookstore. Introduction of the “ash blonde with greenish eyes… with enough sex appeal to stampede a business men’s lunch” that works there. Introduction to Geiger.
Chapter 5. Marlowe locates Geiger’s home address. Introduction of a woman who works in a shop opposite Geiger’s. More information on Geiger, who appears to deal in books of ‘indescribable filth’.
So, everything seems to be running quite smoothly here; now knowing what Geiger looks like and where he lives, the next step for Marlowe is to go to Geiger’s home and confront him. Importantly, knowing Geiger’s trade makes him clearly a Bad Guy (or at least, Immoral Guy), so the reader has no problem if Marlowe needs to solve this with some fisticuffs. We know Marlowe has an eye for the ladies, and also that Rusty Regan may figure in this later on; he’s one of the only characters mentioned twice and he’s missing under mysterious circumstances, so despite the protagonist actively claiming he’s not looking for Regan we know it’ll figure into the story somehow.
The difference in pacing here is tremendous, but both authors clearly know what they’re doing. Chabon has more pages to play with and is working in an invented world, so he’s laying down background information around Sitka. Crucially, he’s also set key tasks and timeframes and the protagonist to work toward and within, and provided an opportunity for Landsman to break the rules and pursue his own path. Chandler hasn’t given the same opportunity for Marlowe yet, but he hasn’t needed to; Marlowe is a private detective and so is just here to do a job. The only thing that indicates this won’t be an easy task or the only thing for him to do is that there is another 180+ pages to go – plenty of space for things to go wrong, or for another case to be thrown his way. Importantly, Chandler is also dealing with an established world – an unnamed city, sure, but contemporaneous to the reader when it was initially published.
So, how does my work in progress fare in comparison? Well, good but not great to be bitterly truthful. I look at the opening chapters of Ghosts of the Revolution and I find an introduction to a small cast of characters, some plot advancement for the key protagonist, and lots of exposition concerning my made-up world. Unlike Chabon, I haven’t actually quite managed to explain in sixty-odd pages why my alternate history has diverged from reality. I’ve also shunted off some of the background information concerning the protagonist to later chapters, to give more space to introduce a second character. This may be, in retrospect, a poor idea; it’ll slow down the reader and not give them enough to sink their teeth into. Time for me to recalibrate and have another look at how that opening section flows. With any luck, that’ll provide both the reader and I some motivation to move onto later chapters, springboarding the narrative into the currently-unwritten middle sections of the story.