Opening Chapter
Writing Craft

Engaging readers from the First Sentence part 2

More sad disasters and bad beginnings.

There are plenty of ways to ruin your first chapter. Last week we covered kitchen sink opening lines and clichés. These are the easy fixes. Today we’re going to talk about structural problems. These are the problems that prompt a complete rewrite, or simply tossing the pages in the bin.

When I do a shredding I only look at the first ten pages. This is about 5000 words. If my eyes glaze over at any point in the sample, I know it can’t be from exhaustion. The symptoms of a dead dull beginning are undeniable. I cannot force my eyes to read the words. When this happens, I immediately turn my attention to answering why. What is the element that is making my brain revolt? They usually fall into two main categories: unnecessary scenes, and TMI

Unnecessary scenes are scenes with no conflict, nothing’s happening in the story.

In a recent submission, the two main characters spent four of the first ten pages engaging in chit chat.

“Hi, I’m Julie” was immediately followed by paragraphs about jobs and seen any good movies lately. I don’t enjoy this when I’m at parties. In an opening to a book, when I have nothing invested in the characters, this was a kiss of death. Small talk is not interesting. Every day I take my daughter to the bus stop and for five minutes I talk to the other parents about riveting topics like the weather, how adorable the last school project was, or whether the “sports team” will win the game. See, you are already bored. There’s no story here. Small talk has no place in your opening pages.

How can we fix this?

Assuming you can’t simply cut the pages, find a way to add conflict to the story.

Two people having a polite conversation over coffee with nothing at stake isn’t interesting. We need to add some conflict. Let’s try this scene again in a different setting. What if Julie is now speed-dating and she’s had her eye on one guy who is nearly at the end of the line. For twenty minutes she’s had time to stew and get nervous.

He sits down and smiles at me in that apologetic, this is so awkward way. It is probably the most awkward thing I’ve ever done. Waiting for a little buzzer to let us know it’s time to talk. Who came up with this idea? It’s ridiculous, and what kind of idiot am I for agreeing to do this? I try to swallow down the bubble of tension forming in my chest. The buzzer rings.

“HiI’mJulie!” busts out if my mouth in a monosyllabic blur.

A mocking little twinkle appears in his smoky gray eyes. “Sorry, I didn’t catch that.”

Please, just let me die right here. 

In the new example, we have a conflict. Julie wants something: to impress this guy. But something stands in her way: her inability to conquer her nerves and speak coherently. Bonus: the conflict is relatable. Who hasn’t gotten tongue tied when meeting someone new?

Without conflict, there is no story. You cannot simply list events in a person’s day and call it a plot. Conflict is the essence of plot. I don’t care how witty the banter is, if there’s no conflict, it isn’t interesting. Fix it, or dump it. You don’t need dead weight pages drowning your story.


Don’t let your opening pages sink under the weight of too much information.

A simple mistake to find and fix is Character Soup.

Do not introduce your entire cast in the first chapter. Remember, we are meeting these characters for the first time. The first chapter needs to be reserved for introducing your main character, (or, if is dual POV, two) and the character she is in conflict with during the opening scene, But NO MORE. I once read an opening chapter that introduced 9 characters, by name. I had no idea who was who, or who was important. It was a disaster.

What to do instead.

Assuming you can’t eliminate these extra people, keep their influence to a minimum.

Don’t name people who aren’t in the scene:

If the MC is eating grandma’s cookies, just call them grandma’s cookies. Don’t give grandma a name, and please, don’t launch into a paragraph and a half describing grandma and the time you spent at her house and…

Don’t name or describe extras

Just like in movies, these people are just part of the setting. While in real life you should definitely treat the girl making your mocha latte as an actual person, in your book, she is part of the scenery. She doesn’t need a name or more than a sentence of description. Bonus: use that description to really tell us something about your MC.

The barista had a wicked row of hoops running up her left ear. I’m so doing that when I get paid on Friday.


The barista had an appalling amount of scrap metal attached to her face. Good Lord!

Which one of these women had to dye her hair silver?

Let your reader get familiar with a character before introducing more people. I don’t want to have to make index cards to keep the cast straight.

People who will be important later

If you can’t move them, give them a quick title, but nothing more. i.e my friends, mom, my boss. No description, and minimal lines. Keep your focus on the main characters and the main action. You can save mom’s judgy comments for a later scene.

The second TMI problem is the infamous backstory dump.

Go back to your scene’s conflict. If I don’t need to know the backstory to understand the conflict/stakes then leave it out. I don’t care about your character’s childhood trauma. Even if it’s relevant to why she freezes up socially, I don’t need to know that in the first scene. Save this for later.

What to do instead:

Cut any backstory, yes, all of it, then reread your scene. Better yet, have someone else read the scene. If it still makes sense, the backstory is unnecessary. The missing information can become a question that propels the reader forward. Why does this character freeze up socially? If you’ve hooked your reader, she will want to read more to find out the answer.Only add back what is necessary for the scene to make sense.

The close cousin of the backstory dump is the info dump.

Long paragraphs of world building will kill your pacing. Don’t let your character stand in the middle of the sidewalk and describe what he sees around him.

The tall buildings were covered in LED advertising. My grandfather told me that you used to be able to see the actual glass when he was a kid. A ping sounded in my ear from the iChip in my brain. “You are approaching Target, would you like to hear about today’s offers?” Before I can say no, a long list of groceries plays back from a creepy automated voice.

While it’s an interesting world, there’s no story here. Instead use conflict to build your world.

Tall buildings covered in LED skins assault me with advertisements. Everything shouts: buy me, you want this, I will fix your problem.” Unless it can call me a tow, then no, it isn’t going to fix my problem. I never should have bought that space cruiser. Thing’s been nothing but trouble. 

From the sidewalk, a Chinese woman insists that her moisturizing cream took twenty years off her face. I step on it. A ping sounds in my head. “You are approaching Target, would you like to hear…?” The battery dies halfway through. Stupid iChip. I can’t believe I forgot to charge it. What kind of idiot forgets to plug in their brain?

Notice how the second example introduces the setting, the conflict, and we learn that character is a whiny jerk. We get more information by combining them, and it doesn’t slow the pacing by stopping the action to describe the character or the setting.

Avoiding these common problems will help get your opening pages out of the slush pile and help you get that coveted request

Narrow your focus to the main characters and their immediate conflict. Use this to build your world and add only the back story that is essential for the reader to understand the immediate problem. Once you trim the extra information, your pacing will improve and the reader will know what is important. This is what you need in an opening chapter. Don’t make your story carry around extra baggage. The opening chapter has enough to do already.

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M.L. Keller is a freelance writer and editor. Her blog "The Manuscript Shredder" is focused on helping emerging writers hone their craft.


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