The Quest for the Perfect First Chapter – Snowcrash

Neal Stephenson’s novel Snowcrash comes out of the gate with a rapid flow of language that feels impatient with a reader that won’t keep up. The tone is hip, and there’s an immediacy to the story. (Some minor first chapter spoilers follow.)

We’re off and running with the second and third line:

“He’s got esprit up to here. Right now, he is preparing to carry out his third mission of the night.”

Next, we’re introduced to the mysterious main character’s equipment, including two samurai swords and a tricked-out super car. The reader is still in the dark as to the nature of the job or even the character’s name. In just a few pages we know he is going to need to go somewhere fast and it will be dangerous. He’s also seemingly overqualified for whatever his job is, as it’s finally revealed that he delivers pizza and the delivery personnel are university trained.

I found myself wondering while reading when the story would show more cards, revealing the pizza delivery to be some cover or euphemism. But it unfolds at face value. Pizza is serious business!

Here begins the fleshing out of the bizzaro cyberpunk future where pizza delivery drivers are compared to kamikazes in their sense of purpose. Delivering late is not an option.

The world is divided up into corporate autonomous zones also of which little is revealed initially but more gets explained later. For now, there’s just enough meat on the bones of the world to drop in our super delivery man, and there’s a big problem: The next delivery our hero needs to make has already had the clock ticking for ten minutes.

In ten pages, Neal Stephenson has got the reader hooked and moving on to chapter two to see whether the delivery deadline can be made. This break-neck pace isn’t a good fit for many stories, but the humorous tone and offbeat world are well served by this opening chapter. Many science fiction stories will build slowly. Some have learning curves which require patience. Snowcrash front-loads the fun parts and saves some of the denser portions for later after building up a head of steam.

neal stephenson
Neal Stephenson

These are just a few of the elements that make Snowcrash’s first chapter a standout. Certainly there are many other examples of novels where the first chapter is notable. I’ll touch on some in the future.

Which book’s first chapter made you sit up and pay attention? Please share.

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