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Five Common First-Chapter Mistakes

Thursday, November 15, 2012


By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

Can you judge a book by the first 15 pages? Is it really fair to decide on the worth of an entire book based solely on the first chapter or two?

Well, fair or not, that's usually all readers will give us if we're published, and that's all agents and publishers will allow us if we're querying.

Of course, anyone can polish up the first chapter and make it sparkle. Some writers do indeed spend weeks and weeks revising, rewriting, and honing the first chapter . . . to the neglect of the rest of the story. Obviously it takes a great deal more skill to weave the entire plot to a believable and satisfying conclusion than it does to craft a first chapter.

While 15 pages can’t give the whole picture, it is enough to come to conclusions about the author’s writing skills. After several years of judging contests, I've come to understand how an agent or publisher 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.

For published books, if the story hasn't hooked my by the end of the first chapter, I usually set it down and forget to pick it back up—no matter my best intentions. Because let's face it, there are a lot of other things vying for my attention. And I'm not likely to return to a book that can't captivate me in the first chapter.

So what are some of the ways we can alienate readers, agents, and publishers with the beginnings of our books?
Here are five common first chapter “mistakes" I've noticed over the years:

1. 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.

2. Waiting to begin the “real” tension and conflict.


First chapters should contain very little if any static. We should very rarely have the main characters reflecting on life, thinking about their current or past situation, or contemplating doing certain activities. 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.


3. 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.


4. 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 start.

5. 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.

Do you think it's fair to judge a book by the first chapter or two? How many pages (or chapters) do you usually give a book before giving up on it? 

(Since I'm participating in NaNoWriMo this month and attempting to complete 50K on a novel, this post is a modified reproduction of a previous article: Potential First Chapter Problems. Happy writing!)

 

28 comments:

  1. First chapters are tricky, for sure. A lot of pressure. I think you offer some helpful suggestions. Thanks for posting!

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  2. I had been very unhappy with my first chapter of my WIP and couldn't ever figure out why until I read some of your posts on common first chapter mistakes and then I realized why. Too much back story, not jumping right into the action. I agree, it's so important to hook the reader in right away.

    As a reader, I am actually one who will give the book a chance even if I'm not thrilled about the first few chapters. I feel I need to give it at least that and by then I feel invested and need to finish what I stared. However, if I'm not overly impressed with the book I tend not to read anymore of that author's books. First impressions are a big deal!

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  3. Jody, I agree with all your suggestions, but would dial back the "first fifteen pages" to the first five--I think it only takes that much for an agent, editor, or reader too make up his/her mind.
    Good luck with NaNoWriMo--I've given up on that activity, since it takes me away from my occasional golf game. And thanks for sharing.

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  4. I usually view reading as an 'investment'--more so than a TV show, for example. So I usually get beyond the first several chapters, even if it isn't clipping along. But I think I'm in the minority there.

    I know many readers will stop a book at almost any point if they aren't getting into it. As a writer, I view the first chapter (or two) as being more important for setting the tone of the story. It lets the reader know what's in store. Is the plot going to be lightening paced, or a slow burn? Is the MC snarky or needy? And so on...

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  5. If the author hasn't hooked me within the first chapter, I rarely will finish the book. The only exception is if I like the premise and know that at some point it has to get good, or if I've read and liked other stories by the same author. Right now I have a book on my shelf by a very well-known Christian author and I've loved all of her six or seven other books, but this one I'm really having a hard time getting into. I've picked it up three of four times and I keep plugging away at it, knowing it has to get good at some point, but I'm really struggling. At some point, I'll finish it, but it could be a while.

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  6. I've been rethinking the opening scenes for my next book for weeks now...and this post completely inspired me this morning. Thank you so much for the great tips and advice. I think I know what my problem is now...too much static in that first scene, not enough actual, story-driven tension. Brain is pinging with a new idea now. Thank you sooo much!

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  7. I used to always finish books, whether I was liking the story or not. Now, I just don't have time for that. Even if a book hooks me in the beginning, if the middle is all muddled and doesn't keep the tension going, I can't finish. It saddens me, actually, but I just don't have time!

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  8. Check. Check. Check. Check. Check.

    I did them all with my first MS. Do I win a booby prize???

    After some SERIOUS editing, every single element you listed was addressed. Wow. I'd venture to guess you know what you're talking about.....

    Blessings,
    Becky

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  9. For years I always read a book through, whether I liked it or not. It was a guilt thing; "always finish what you start" is what my mother taught me. Eventually I realized there are too many good books out there to waste my time on ones that don't capture my attention. Now I quit reading wherever I lose interest, on the first, fifth or fiftieth page. The first chapter doesn't have to be action-packed, but I have to enjoy the writing, the characters, and/or the setting enough to want to continue reading.

    I'm doing NaNoWriMo again this year, too... hoping to finish a first draft of something new. Best of luck with your 50,000.

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  10. Hey everyone! I'm hearing a common theme from many of you, that you wish you had more time to keep going with a book that doesn't hook you. But that there are just too many other books clamoring for your attention. And I feel the same way. But I do think that's led me to be slightly more picky about what books I buy and perhaps a little less willing to try a newer authors, unless I'm already hearing good things about their books (or they have fairly high starred ratings).

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  11. Sometimes I think it's fair, but sometimes not. There are some books that I've had to give a few chapters to really suck me in. Others are from the first line. However, a lot of it is "eye of the beholder." Some books suck people in that I can't even read, and vice versa.

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  12. I have judged books based solely on the first couple of pages on occasion. It is not fair...as one of my friends tells me, but it is true. If the first couple of pages are painful to read, or put me into a coma, then I put it back on the shelf and move on.

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  13. Oh boy, did I need this one! I'm a brand new baby novelist. I've someone who is wanting the first chapter of my novel for an anthology and I pulled it out and sent it to her. I hadn't read it in a couple of months and was hopeful that it would stand as it was. Got it back with "re-read this, aloud, and look for repetitions of words." That was one thing not on your list. But there it was, big as life.

    And there were simple, stupid grammar mistakes that cropped up as well, things like changing tenses in a paragraph three times. Color me mortified.

    Now I'm going to go back with your list and do another re-read before I send the changes back to my editor. I hope this gets it tweeked well enough that I can look forward to the rest of the novel being less of a fear of failure.

    The one other thing a new writer can not do is fear red ink--your editor is your best friend.

    I was a technical writer in a past life.

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  14. I won't read a book beyond about 15-20ish pages if it doesn't grab my attention. I have SUCH a long TBR list! I've honed and honed my first chapter. I know how easy it is to lose a reader.

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  15. I do think it is fair to judge a book by the first chapter. There have been a few books that I have put down after the first few paragraphs!

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  16. When I decide whether or not to buy I book, I often peek at the first few pages; I like that I can do this online at Amazon.com too. So the first pages are definitely important. I especially agree with you about the part about not spending too much time setting up the story. I recently read a book where the writer apparently felt the need to provide a mini-bio on every single character; I wanted the writer to hurry up and get back to the actual story.

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  17. I'm more the forgivable type, I give the book a while before I toss it just because I know how hard it can be. But I do think your tips are great and I'll use them in my own writing. I don't want to alienate readers. In my case, I try to dig into the story as an observation on why it got published, studying it and learning what I can from each part. It's learning ground even sometimes if it's not an enjoyable read. I do this as a "writer" though and I realize a reader is not going to give the author the same chance.

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  18. Terrific post. As both an author and an editor, sometimes it can be tough to put my finger on the exact problem that's holding the story back. I think you've summed it up beautifully.

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  19. Great reminders on keeping the first chapter especially gripping. I try to carry that same mindset into the rest of the book. When writing and editing I always remind myself: "If it's boring, leave it out."

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  21. My current project has had the first chapter change to completely different moments in the story three times as the book has progressed. I think the most important thing is to write out your story first..Where your book actually starts can change. Remember, you don't have to tell the story in chronological order; if your reader can follow the thread you can start anywhere.

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  22. Excellenty post, Jody. Especially #2. You're making me re-think my WIP.

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  23. I give up on a book after the first two chapters, so I'm an impatient reader.

    My WIP has had the beginning re-written thrice, and the 1st draft isn't done yet!

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  24. I think a book should have you drawn in by the end of the first chapter. I have actually been reviewing books based on their first chapter.

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  25. It may not be fair but we all do it. Thanks for the advice on things to avoid in the first chapter.

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