The best ways to ruin your first chapter
Most writers know that a novel needs a great first line, but what happens after that? So many beginnings fall into the same problems. While identifying clichés is simple enough, that isn’t going to guarantee a successful opening. Many opening chapters suffer from structural problems that prompt a complete rewrite or even tossing the pages in the bin. Don’t ruin your first chapter with these mistakes.
Most issues fall into two main categories: unnecessary scenes (scenes that don’t move the story ahead) and info dumping.
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 of 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.
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 one other important character. (antagonist, love interest, best friend etc.) 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.
Eliminate any unnecessary characters from the scene.
The beginning of the book is not the time to take roll at school or crowd surf at a party. If you can’t eliminate these extra people, keep their influence to a minimum, and keep the focus on your main character and that character’s current conflict.
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 name and a quick title or a meaningful trademark (like a peculiar habit) that will help readers identify this character later. But nothing more. i.e my friends, mom, my boss. No backstory or long speeches. Keep your focus on the main characters and the main action. You can save mom’s judgy comments for a later scene.
Character description dump
Avoid the temptation to describe secondary characters in multiple paragraph form. A quick, meaningful description is best. Readers don’t want to know the sister’s eye color, hair color, nose shape, etc. Focus on something distinctive, like how annoyed your main character is when her sister chews her nails.
The 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.
This is where the “show, don’t tell” axiom can get writers into trouble. Building setting through showing can get tedious for readers. (Especially in opening pages.) There is nothing wrong with using a quick line of telling to ground readers in a setting so the real story can begin.
It was a Sunday morning in the very height of spring -Franz Kafka opening line of The Judgement
Writers can also avoid the setting dump by showing one small part of the setting and letting it imply the entire scene.
It was the smell, that particular blending of human waste and unwashed bodies that named this place an asylum.
Worldbuilding 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 are all 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 sounds 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 the 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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