Can you guess the number one flaw of the opening chapter to a novel? Explanations. Yep. Too much info, too big of a set-up, just too, too much stuff! I'm sure you've heard about the hook. Every book on writing, every instructor of writing, every successful author will advise you to include that great opening line or opening scene, something exciting, tintilating, something with that "WOW" factor to hook your readers, to guarantee they will want to read more.
Yet, at the same time, you don't want to confuse your readers about the story. You need setting. You need background. Details to give readers an accurate picture. Right? So, you decide to include some explanation, to answer the who, what, where, when , why of the situation. And you explain. You may start by including a little more about the main character's background--where he came from, why he's here, etc. Then you figure while you're at it, you should add more about the setting, and before you know it you're flooding the chapter with all sorts of details to describe the story. And you haven't even had a chance to begin the story! It's drowning and sinking so fast that you'll never be able to bring it up to see daylight and your readers again :-(
Start with a situation, exciting, eye-popping, throat-catching, heart-pulpitating action to leave your readers begging for more. And all that explanation? That detail? Bring it in gradually. No hurry. As you write you will find places where those bits and pieces of detail fit perfectly. Don't underestimate your reader's intelligence. They will put it together and figure it out. And they will stay interested while they're at it.
Think about it. The fact that Aunt Gertrude was a flapper back in the day and used to drink bath tub gin may be an interesting tidbit, but not a relevant detail on page one. However, if you fastforward to a later chapter when Mattie is reading a diary she finds in the attic, she could read about Aunt Gertrude and her flapper days. In the first chapter it just slows things down.
James Bell (and yes, I know, I'm on a James Bell kick) suggests if you think your first chapter is a boring slug, then start your novel with chapter two. He calls it "Chapter Two Switcheroo". Cute, heh? Then, you can add in all those details from chapter one later on.
Now, what should you include in an opening chapter? Well, let's start small. An opening line. Ones that work best have two elements in them. The character's name and an action, something that happens or is about to happen. If you manage that, you are off to a great start.
So, what do you think? Is your chapter one a yawner? Or is it poppin'? Remember, there are sooooo many books out there that readers may choose from, and you want them to choose YOURS. Right? :-)
Happy writing to all of you. Enjoy!