What to Avoid in Your First Chapter

redpenBy Cecilia Lewis

Your first chapter is the most important chapter of your novel. It’s the first thing your reader will see when they open the book, and it forms their first impression. The first pages absolutely must hook the reader, or they won’t continue reading. As both a freelance editor and an editor for a publishing company, I read a lot of first pages. By the end of the first chapter, I’ve probably formed my opinion on the manuscript. The more I evaluate first chapters, the more I notice issues that are fairly common in the manuscripts I read. Here are a few issues to look for in your first chapter:

  1. Starting in the wrong place

This is one of the biggest issues I see. Often, first chapters start too soon, taking the reader through the protagonist’s typical day. It can be tempting to spend a lot of time grounding the reader in the world before getting to the story, but readers won’t be hooked if the story takes too long to start. Instead, a book ought to start as close to the inciting incident—the event that triggers the story—as possible.

  1. Too much backstory

I often see writers dumping large amounts of information about the character’s backstory or other circumstances on the first page or elsewhere in the first chapter. This technique completely halts the story and doesn’t engage readers. It’s much more effective to sprinkle backstory and other contextual information throughout. Give your readers a reason to care about your character first, and then let them know the backstory one piece at a time.

  1. Lacking character development

I see a lot of chapters that open with a fast-paced action scene in an attempt to hook the reader. The problem here is that the reader doesn’t know these characters yet and doesn’t have any reason to care about them. Just because a beginning has action does not mean it is engaging or tense. Start with a character your reader can connect with, who has a clear goal they’re working to achieve, and save the thrilling action sequences for when they’ll be more effective.

  1. Writing issues

This is a broad term, but by “writing issues” I mean sentence-level problems that will pull me out of the story every time. The most common issues I see in submissions are telling instead of showing, filter words/phrases, wordiness, problems with sentence structure, excessive description, and basic grammar issues. If these types of problems are present in your first chapter, it’s likely that they’re present throughout the rest of the book. As an editor reading submissions, this is always a red flag for me.

  1. False starts

This is another issue that I see frequently. The first chapter—or, often, prologue—will start with something exciting to hook the reader, but then the following chapter will go back in time to the actual start of the story. This often feels like a trick to the reader, instead of an effective opening. If you’re tempted to skip ahead to a more exciting scene before the real beginning of the story, that’s a clear indication that your beginning isn’t engaging enough. Don’t fake your opening; fix it.

  1. Voice issues

I see this issue most with YA, but it can apply to other categories as well. Every category—and even genre—has a very specific type of voice you should aim for. In YA, for example, your protagonist’s voice must fit the correct age range. I see a lot of YA where the voice sounds too old, or where an adult is clearly trying too hard to sound like a teen.

  1. Slow-paced or lacking conflict

I’m lumping these two issues together because they often go hand-in-hand. Your opening absolutely must start with some kind of conflict that will hook the reader and drive the pace forward. That doesn’t necessarily mean a fast action scene, though. Conflict can be subtle, but it must be present.

  1. Generic or clichéd openings

After reading so many submissions, there are several openings that I see over and over again: a character waking up, a character looking in a mirror to describe themselves, a character leaving on a trip or arriving in a new place, receiving some kind of message or phone call, dialogue from the middle of a conversation, or a journal entry. I know it’s easy to fall back on some of these—I’ve been guilty of at least one of those myself—but the more original you can be in your opening, the more it will engage your reader.

  1. Lack of focus

I see a lot of first chapters that wander, introducing several different elements with no indication of where the story is going. With so much of your story to introduce, it can be tempting to shove everything into the first chapter. But it’s absolutely crucial that your first chapter grounds readers in the story and gives them an idea of what’s coming next. Don’t leave your reader wondering what the point is.

  1. Confusing openings

I see a lot of first chapters that seem to begin in the middle of the story and don’t sufficiently explain what’s happening. While it’s important not to weigh your story down with backstory and explanation, the reader does need some context in order to understand what’s happening. You want your reader to ask questions in the beginning, but you don’t want them to ask, “What’s going on?” If the reader is lost, they’re not hooked.

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The first chapter is vital in engaging readers in your story. Take a close look at yours and see if you can spot any of these issues. Make sure your first chapter is the best it can be.

What do you think? Do you struggle with any of these issues in your first chapter? What are the issues I missed? Let me know in the comments!

Want a professional edit of your first pages before you send them out? Check out my Page Critique service, or take a look at the Manuscript Evaluation to have your entire manuscript critiqued. Looking for other editorial services? Check out my Services page for more information about what I offer.

This post is part of my Writing Craft series. For more info about planning, writing, and revising your work, check out the other posts in the series here, and follow the blog to see future posts!

Related Links:

-Writing Great Opening Lines

-7 Tips on Writing Engaging First Pages

-Understanding Point of View: The Basics

-4 Tips for Developing Your Voice

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6 thoughts on “What to Avoid in Your First Chapter

  1. mothermi6 says:

    I have been uneasily contemplating the first five letters (in my epistolary novel) for quite some time. As a sequel to the first collection of letters, I simply carried on and – as you very clearly said – it is probably not a good idea to start with a cliché. In my case, this was the temporary move to a new place. I have now sorted this out on my home PC!
    Thanks
    Evangeline

    Like

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