Avoiding First Chapter Blunders

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You’ve got your idea. Your characters are fleshed out. The setting is crystallized in your mind.

You power up the laptop, and you place your fingers on the keys. Chapter one.

There’s a magic in that. You can practically feel the readers forming an orderly line to purchase your book, even before you finish the first paragraph. But what do you want to accomplish? What are the things to avoid in your first chapter? In this post, we’ll look at the nitty-gritty of a novel’s first chapter.

 

What are you looking to accomplish?
In a first chapter, you have several things that you want to accomplish and clue the reader on. This is not an exhaustive list, but let’s look at some common items.

  • Identify a protagonist
  • Establish something the protagonist wants
  • Set the tone for the book
  • Make a few promises
  • Indicate what time/place in history
  • Present an immediate conflict/issue

 

Let’s take a look at each.

 

Identify a Protagonist
This one is fairly straight forward. This often is the first person mentioned and spotlighted. I have been guilty of this in the past, but the consensus is that it’s good to identify this person’s name right away to help the reader click with that protagonist. Not naming the protagonist often feels vague to the reader, and it can lose their attention. It’s a rare reason to not name your protagonist right away, and if you choose to use one of those reasons, just be aware that you are risking the reader’s attention.

 

Establish something the protagonist wants
Every character should want something, even if it’s a trivial thing. It doesn’t have to be the final desire, or it could even change part way through. Writing in something the protagonist wants helps to drive the story, and it frankly makes the character realistic. Who do you know in life that doesn’t want something? Exactly. Everyone wants something, and so should your characters. Now, you may be thinking that it should be something grand like victory, vindication, revenge, world domination, etc. It doesn’t have to be so. Your protagonist’s initial desire could be the opposite of those things. For an example, look no further than Bilbo in The Hobbit. When you meet his younger self, his deepest desire at that point is to be left out of any adventures. Of course, if you write that sort of initial desire in for your character, you’ll have to change it fairly soon, otherwise it’ll be a dull story, but it’s perfectly fine for the onset.

 

Set the tone
The tone is the flavor of the book. For example, Pride and Prejudice has a playful, witty sense of style to it. The Game of Thrones has a gritty tone, letting you know that anyone is fair game to die. One way to quickly lose a reader’s interest is to completely change the tone part-way through. Of course, the tone of your story will ebb and flow, but it should stay within the ballpark of where you’ve started. Imagine if you sat down for a romantic comedy movie, then have it sour to depression until the end. You’d be wondering what else you could have spent your money on.

 

Make promises
You don’t have to concentrate much on this, because you do it naturally already. Most writers do this without even realizing it. For example, if you mention magic in the beginning of your book, you’re making a promise that it’ll continue throughout the rest. If you don’t, then the reader will be disappointed. If you have two equally attractive people flirt with each other in the beginning, the expectation is that they’ll get together, or at the least that they’ll try to. Can you imagine if Rachel and Ross didn’t even try for each other after so much flirting in the first season of Friends? Another example might be if you mention a doomsday weapon toward the beginning of the book. The reader will expect to figure out what that’s all about. Essentially, any type of goal that you mention early on will need to be fulfilled or at least explained why it couldn’t have been fulfilled. We’ll talk more about foreshadowing in another blog post.

 

Time/Place
You don’t have to come out and announce that your story is set in France in 1571, but you do need to give the reader hints about where they’re at in the time/space continuum. For example, in a story that I once wrote, I mentioned the protagonist riding on a horse, smelling fish, mentioning boats, and seeing a blacksmith. That pretty much tells you all you initially need to know about time and place. You can figure out that the setting is a coastal location, probably before 1910-ish. I continue to drop further hints along the way, but the reader loves to “discover” these things for themselves, rather than you, the writer, coming out and telling them.

 

Present an immediate conflict/issue
From the onset, present an immediate problem (more on conflict here). Perhaps the protagonist is late, is interrupted, or is presented with a snag to his/her plans. The reader wants to see the protagonist handle something small before something large. If you make the first ten chapters a breeze, then smack the protagonist with a giant two hundred feet tall terrorizing the city, the reader will find it difficult to swallow but also won’t believe the protagonist is capable of handling it. During your next movie or book, keep an eye out for the small problems the writers give the protagonist at the beginning. You’ll come to find about three or four small bumps handled before the over-arching issue is presented.

 

Now that we’ve gone though what you want to accomplish, let’s look at some of the no-no’s of story-starting. Sadly, these things probably started out as interesting hundreds of years ago, and we writers have repeated them into duds.

  • Waking up: the reader doesn’t want to read about the teeth-brushing the reader already did that morning. Been there, done that.
  • Describing oneself in a mirror: no need to ask who is the fairest of them all. It’s a little pretentious. I can firmly say that I’ve never done this as a new writer. *looks up and to the left*
  • Happy people in happy land: this was mentioned earlier, but not 100% of things can be sugar-sweet. If it is, make sure to have a strong flavor of that 2% (don’t worry about that math) not being/feeling right to the protagonist, like a thunder-in-paradise sort of thing.
  • Not opening with a strong enough hook: you need to have a strong hook, or the reader will find shiny things to be distracted with. A hook can be a premise, concept, idea, or angle of your story that makes it unique and engaging.
  • Too much back-story/info-dumping: for more on this, check out a previous post on info-dumping.
  • Character confusion: the reader shouldn’t be confused on who they should be considering is the protagonist.
  • Lackluster first lines: you don’t have to mention explosions, fast cards, and swimsuit models all in the first line, but make it something that makes the reader want to continue. Something to peak their curiosity.
  • Changing Tenses: hopefully this isn’t common, but stick to one tense. If you really really know what you’re doing, then you can play with it, but if you don’t, then don’t. It’s very tricky and should only be done by a trained professional on a closed course.
  • No curiosity: please don’t explain everything right away. Then there’s no reason for the reader to continue.
  • Trying too hard: try to avoid using flowery language (otherwise called “purple prose”) and fancy words. If I have to break out the dictionary just to read your story, then in all likelihood I probably won’t. This is often indicative of a new writer who is trying too hard to sound like a seasoned writer. Sometimes the bleakest, shortest sentences have the most impact.
  • Loss of focus: no matter what goal/conflict you introduce, have it going somewhere. Have a flow-feel to things so that the reader knows there’s a reason to continue.
  • Prologues: this one probably shouldn’t be on the no-no list, but just use them with caution. I’ve read more than a few literary agent interviews who say they prefer a story without a prologue. Many would just rather see a well-written first chapter. Some genres are more forgiving than others. For example, it’s absolutely not uncommon for a fantasy novel to have a prologue. Instead of a no-no, let’s just call this a caution light.

 

Alright, feel free to uncross your arms now. That’s it. There are exceptions to every rule, and there are ways to do each one of the above items decently. But just be aware that if you do so, you’re fighting against the current and will probably be guilty until proven innocent. You have to ask yourself whether you want to put in the effort to prove the relevance of the thing you just did or didn’t do. For example, they say to never kill off your protagonist in the beginning of the book. And what does George R. R. Martin do? (spoiler alert) That very thing! He pulled it off well and is wildly successful as an author, although I never fully forgave him for that (and, to be fair, it did cause a chunk of people to put down the book). So, it is possible to be successful by breaking a “rule,” but consider it from all sides.

 

Conclusion
There are a lot of things to keep in mind for a first chapter. It’s like a first impression. But the most important thing for a first chapter is for the reader to get to know you and your personal flavor. I try to remember to not get so lost in the rules and expectations as to diminish my “voice,” and the style that I want to offer my readers. There’s certainly a reason why your readers keep coming back for more.

 

 

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92 thoughts on “Avoiding First Chapter Blunders”

  1. The culprit will remain nameless, but I once proofread a book that had the words ‘crepuscular’ and ‘crapulent’ in the first line. Suffice it to say, they never made into the final draft! I’d say ‘overwordiness’ in the opening scene may cause a reader to put the book down. I want to be engrossed in the story, not reaching for a dictionary!

    * I accept ‘overwordiness’ is a wordy-word itself and is also made up. 🙂

    Liked by 4 people

  2. Once someone said that the beginning is never the beginning. I thought that was important–to allow yourself the freedom to write, because without putting the words down on “paper,” the story will never have a start. And then, rewrite until it truly is the beginning. Sometimes I have to write until I know the characters better, and then oftentimes, that first scene will come a little later in the story, and a new beginning will be THE beginning. 🙂 Great blog! All great points to make the beginning hook the reader into reading more.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Agreed. Get it out first, then go back. I’m nearly at the end of my first draft, but I’ve got my eyes set on the first chapter…even considering deleting it and starting with the second. The first chapter becomes clearer once you’ve written the rest and know where the story is going.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. We were on the same wavelength in that moment then. 🙂 I’m glad it helped. If you are further interested, I’m putting the finishing touches on a new blog post about writer’s block. It’ll be up within the next hour or two.

        Like

  3. Great post! I love the point about protagonists needing to handle something small before we smack them with the big problem. I’m definitely going to be on the lookout for how other people handle that now. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Sometimes I plot things out, sometimes I discover the story. In both cases, the first chapters usually get a lt of attention because the later chapters will have notes like “Need to set this up earlier” or “Don’t need that bit with the cab driver in chapter 3”.

        Changes in early chapters have also grown from later entries like: “NOTE: Need to research this more!” or “CONSISTENCY! (and I like this way of doing things better than the original way)”.

        Or simply the character has grown richer during the writing, and now a way she did something in the early version of chapter 1 simply isn’t the way she’d do it anymore.

        Discovery makes writing more fun, IMHO, and a bit less likely to smother the story in formula.

        Liked by 2 people

  4. This is an EXCELLENT blog post and rather helpful. I am totally guilty of the mirror describing. I don’t do it in a mirror, mirror, kind of way. I have my character looking briefly into it while she’s applying make up and she wonders what colour goes to match her blue eyes. It’s not like I’m having her admiring herself. Is this still considered a mistake?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I wouldn’t call it a mistake, but it flirts closely with the cliche. Essentially, in another life, your example would be perfectly fine/acceptable/suitable, but other writers over the past 50 years or so have sadly beaten the “description via the mirror” thing to death. So, it’s not quite so much as a mistake; it’s more so that it’s been overused and is now the consensus of being considered a lazy cheat of sorts.

      Your example is better than some that I’ve heard, if it helps.

      Another way to do it is to have the character wonder to herself about the color choice without the mirror around, then use the mirror without mentioning descriptions. Or you could have the character go ahead with the color, then have a friend of hers remark on the color match through dialogue. Very subtle dialogue is my best friend when it comes to descriptions of the POV character.

      Also, thanks for reading. I’m glad it helped. : )

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I appreciate your readership. I post three times a week. I might be rolling out a critique type post, where I critique someone’s first 5 paragraphs of their short story or book for free and post it. If you’d like to participate, drop me a line.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, then you should be right at home here. Virtually all of my blog posts are geared toward writers who want to learn (myself included). I’m glad you found it helpful. Thanks for reading.

      Like

  5. You’ve got a lot of great advice here. I love your list of things to avoid in the first chapter. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read a description of the main character looking in the mirror. Ugh.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I came across your blog after you liked my post at kerrinicolecasey.wordpress.com. I just launched my blog LOCUS today. Thank you for reading it. I hope you enjoyed my words. I found this post of yours on the first chapter very helpful. I recently finished the rough draft for a novella, and I know I need to go back in revision and really strengthen the beginning. Your post has given me a lot of pointers and ideas on how to handle this. Thanks! I have started following your blog and look forward to reading more of what you have to say.

    Like

    1. I’m glad that you found it helpful, Kerri. There are many more posts to come. This Thursday I’ll be rolling out a new critique example, where people can read someone else’s work critiqued for the learning experience for everyone. Thanks for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Thanks for reading my author blog post.

    Like your tips especially. Hooking the reader is so important and when I wear my book editor’s hat and read a client’s beginning, that’s what I look for. Often writers go on and on about almost nothing and their beginning – even their whole first chapter is further on in the book.

    Definitely need conflict. I, too, would be bored if the novel’s beginning was just about the protagonist brushing her teeth and other morning rituals – unless it is very brief and then something happens – for example, she may hear an intruder downstairs.

    Good stuff – I’ll be reading more as it is interesting to read another blog that focuses on helping writers write well. I can learn from it.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. Thank you for this post. I’m revising my first light-hearted mystery and realized that I bury the heroine name by delaying it until the second scene. For that suggestion and more, again, I say thanks.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You’re very welcome, Anna. I’ve been guilty of doing the same thing before. So, at least you’re not alone. : )
      Thanks for reading! Later today I’ll have out a blog post on dialogue tags, if you’re interested.

      Like

  9. I had to laugh when I read the description in the mirror one – I’ve done that before 🙂 There is a lot riding on the first chapter, and you’ve identified some good points to keep in mind. (The hook is one I still struggle with.)

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Hiya,Ryan! I so appreciate your follow… and this post is fab! Great advice. As you know, I have a light humor/comedy/memoir blog, but have just started writing fiction again… guilty on the mirror trick in “The Seamstress,” so I consider my paw lightly slapped…. 🙂 Still, this is a goldmine for new writers, and I thank you! Cheers- Mother Hen

    Liked by 2 people

  11. I enjoy your advice postings – to the point and easy to absorb. I’m a new science fiction writer, getting better (I hope) with each attempt. I get a thrill when I read a review for my first that says “An exciting read! The author captures your attention from the start” and feel my stomach drop when I read “2 stars, meaningless”. I wonder, after I get a few novels completed, if I should re-write my first? The best way to learn, at least for me, seems to be to do. Good luck with your Victorian fantasy!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a good question, Kate, and probably only one that you can best answer. It will probably depend on how much improvement you see in your successive novels. If you see a large improvement, then you may want to consider it, sure.
      I appreciate your readership and I hope to see you back. Thanks for reading!

      P.S. You might also check out my newest post “Skill vs. Talent” that I just posted. It’s along the same vein.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Well thank you for this–what perfect timing. I’m in a writing workshop at Gotham and my piece to share is due this week and I didn’t know what help it needed until I read your advice. Thank you thank you
    Amy

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Your post reminded me of a time I’d written something I was happy with and then read an essay by Gore Vidal that cited several BIG errors in my piece. I laughed, threw it away and started again. It’s always good to have reminders. Thank you, and thanks for visiting vsvevg, paz, Abby

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Thank you for liking my blog – Bloggingwithruth – I have had a chance to skim through yours and I like what you write – I will spend the next day or two catching up on your past blogs. Many thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Just curious, I once got slammed on a Writer’s site (one where you post part of your work and they critique it) about opening a story with a dream sequence or even just someone waking in the morning. Why are there certain scenes that other Writers don’t like to see as the first setting and are there others to watch out for? (Sorry I ended the sentence with a preposition LOL)

    Also, I just started a new book and it starts with the MC in the shower after a night of drinking. The reason I did this is because the shower scene is important to the story because it is the first time in the book where time stops. I suppose I could think of a different opening scene but the whole water freezing in mid-air came to me in a Writer’s vision.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello M.W.
      Yes, actually I have something to help you out. A month or so ago, I wrote an entire blog post dedicated to things to avoid in a first chapter.

      https://ryanlanz.com/2014/08/09/first-chapter-blunders/

      These days in mainstream fiction, it’s unfashionable to start with anything that resembles waking, dreaming, or morning routines. They’re considered dull or too ethereal.
      I would recommend to start any story a hair before an impactful moment of change. The readers want to see how the characters respond to that change.

      Liked by 1 person

  16. Before I started reading this, I said to myself, “He better mention the whole looking-through-a-mirror thing

    The thing I enjoyed the most about this post was that every time I read a pitfall, I thought back to my writing to make sure i wasn’t doing that.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. This helpful. I am an amateur, but in my first book I essentially made all those mistakes: so wordy, info-dumping, too much set-up, not leaving enough to be discovered. Now, starting my second book, I am having so much more fun with the unknown, excited for the later revelations and surprises. It was tedious and boring writing the first one, with my naive thought that I had to explain everything to the reader. My first proof readers were like, “I was stressed out that I wouldn’t remember everything, since it seemed important”.

    I am in the process of cutting the intro down to not reveal too much, nor burden the reader with too much back story. I also need to rework the hook, since my initial hook essentially told an entirely different story as a way to set it up. But I need to keep the backstory in a different novel (it is a series I am working on, but I wrote the last one first).

    I will say though, that writing out the intro in (too much) detail helped me to develop the story’s world (for myself), though I will undoubtedly leave that out of the final draft, instead sprinkling in the necessary elements later in the book. And as I do this, I realize I did indeed reveal the same things about the universe later in the book, meaning it was not necessary to clue people in early on.

    So anyway, I agree, over sharing in the beginning, and too much info is a good way to scare readers away, and not leave them wanting more… because you already gave them enough.

    Liked by 1 person

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