So there I was last night, 10:30 pm, revising Chapter One, Scene One yet again. How many times is this? I've lost count.
Why am I still working on this scene? Because this is one of the most important scenes in the book. In fact, I'd be willing to wager Chapter One, Scene One is the most important chapter in any book, in no small part because it's got a lot to do.
Chapter One, Scene One has got to:
1. Be interesting. The first paragraph or two may be all you have to encourage a reader to want to read more (and therefore, buy your book). It doesn't have to grab a reader by the throat and drag her into the story if that's not the sort of story it is. It simply (HA!) has to be interesting enough to make a reader want to read more.
2. Set the scene. Where is this story? Time? Place?
3. Introduce at least one of the main characters, and better yet, both, if it's a romance. This doesn't have to be "in the flesh" -- you can have one main character who hears about the other. However, I think it's always a good idea to get both the hero and heroine into the story as soon as possible.
Why? Won't making the reader wait a bit increase suspense? Well, there's a fine line between suspense and frustration. I look at it this way: when readers pick up one of my books, they know it's a romance. It's in the romance section, for one thing. For another, the publisher (Harlequin) is a give-away. So they know there's going to be a hero and a heroine. To keep them waiting for one or the other to "show up" is like waiting for the party to get started.
4. Give a hint of the conflict(s) to come and/or spell some of them out directly. What's the problem here? Why won't these two just get married and start a family? Is it personal (issues within the characters), social, political? Two or more of those reasons?
5. Give a little info about the physical appearance of the characters. Not necessarily a lot, but some, so the reader can get a visual.
And finally, and this is where I've been meeting my Waterloo, if the book's a sequel and the hero or heroine's immediate actions are a result of something that happened in the previous book, I have to provide enough information that a reader can understand the character's motivation even if they haven't read the previous book without having chunks of exposition that intrude upon the current story like a loud and obnoxious relative at family reunion. Tricky, that.
Speaking of pacing, the opening of a book should also reveal the pace of the story about to unfold -- fast (lots of activity), more leisurely (activity plus introspection/description), very leisurely (lots of introspection/description, less activity). Neither sort of pace is right or wrong, as long as the story moves forward. However, if the book's going to have a generally more leisurely pace, I think it's a mistake to open with a very fast-paced scene just to create a dramatic opening. It sets up an expectation in the reader that you're going to thwart, and that's not good.
Chapter One, Scene One is also going to introduce your author's voice -- the way you tell a story, which also means the way you balance the elements of a story (character, action, setting, etc.). Some people will like your voice, some people won't, but that's the way it is. The main thing is, your writing should sound like you, and nobody else. And no matter how much work, sweat, sighs and mutterings go into Chapter One, Scene One, it shouldn't sound like it's been labored over it ad infinitum. It has to have life, energy, "jazz", a certain vitality that comes from balancing all of the above.
Now you know why I'll spend hours and hours on those first few pages and why, although I may moan and groan about the revising, I do it anyway.