Potential First Chapter Problems

This year I was asked to be a judge in the first rounds of the ACFW Genesis Contest, a national fiction writer’s contest for unpublished writers. Since this was the same contest I finaled in last May, I wanted to give back to the contest that had done so much to launch my writing career.

So, in my “spare” time over the past few weeks, I’ve been reading contest entries. I usually read the entry all the way through to get a feel for the story. Then I go back through it again more slowly, making notes in the margins. Finally, when I’m done, I fill in both pages of the score sheet.

I count it a privilege to read the work of other aspiring writers. I know each one of them poured their hearts into their stories. I was in their position only last year, biting my nails, wondering what the judges would think of my work, waiting for that all-important feedback.

Each entry is no longer than 15 pages. I’ve never believed 15 pages is long enough to determine the worth of a story—anyone can polish up the first chapter but it takes infinitely more skill to weave the entire plot to a believable and satisfying conclusion.

While 15 pages can’t give the whole picture, I’ve realized it is enough to come to conclusions about the author’s writing skills. I’m beginning to understand why an agent can make a clear-cut decision about whether to pursue a query based on sample pages. If a writer doesn’t have a grasp of basic fiction-writing techniques, that jumps out from the first line and paragraph. And likewise, if they’ve practiced their skills, that’s evident too.

In the entries I’ve judged so far, I’ve noticed a few common first chapter “mistakes.” Here’s a short list:

Not opening with a strong enough hook. The first line. The first paragraph. Even more than that, the first scene. Each one is extremely critical and should be crafted to bait the reader into needing to find out more. I might be able to forgive a mediocre first line, but the first scene must draw me in to the story.

Waiting to begin the “real” tension and conflict. Several contest entries began with the main characters reflecting on life, thinking about their current or past situation, or contemplating doing certain activities.

First chapters should contain very little if any static. That includes conversations, meetings, or meals between characters simply for the purpose of conveying story information. It would be like writing a phone conversation and asking our reader to “watch” the characters talk to each other. How exciting is that?

Instead, find the first major conflict of the external & internal plot lines and start in the middle of them.

Too much setting up of the story. Readers don’t need to know how our characters got to the point they’re at. Throw our characters into the story and for the first chapter pretend the reader already knows as much as we do.

Readers want to piece the story together on their own. We’ll give them a more fulfilling reading experience if we let them take our small hints and finally put the character’s past together in their own time. And if we need to explain anything, we can always slide it in little by little later.

Character confusion. We can confuse our readers with too many characters in the first chapter. And we can also confuse them if we don’t put the spotlight on our main characters right away. Readers want to empathize and relate with the main character(s) from the get go.

Using too many clichés. Every writer should steer away from overused phrases, especially in the first chapter. They jump out and brand an author as amateur. We should always be striving to find unique and fresh ways to express emotions and descriptions, but it’s particularly important for the first chapter.

I’ve also noticed the tendency to use clichéd characters, reactions, and plot lines. My test for deciding if something is clichéd is this: if it sounds even vaguely like something I’ve read somewhere else, then it probably isn’t unique. If it has even a hint of cliché, then I need to dig deeper into my mental recesses and come up with something fresher.

Summary: When writing for the modern reader, the first chapter is critical. We have to captivate them in the opening pages or we might lose them altogether.

What other problems have you noticed with first chapters? Is there a particular area in your opening that you struggle with the most? And on a different note, do you think you if you were a judge or agent you could make a fair assessment about a writer’s skill from the first chapter?

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