Do’s and Don’ts of First Chapters

As I’m renewing my struggle with the first chapter of a manuscript I wrote five years ago, I’m perusing a lot of the advice on first chapters. I’ve noticed that the majority of first chapters of contemporary fiction, no matter what the genre, are extremely well written. Often the quality diminishes later in the book, but by then the reader is hooked and won’t give up the story easily.

ink pen on paper sprouting treesSo What Makes a First Chapter Truly Great?

We know that the first sentence must be powerful enough to entice the reader into continuing through the first paragraph, then the first page and so on. But what is it exactly the reader must be hooked with?

Before we get serious how about a bit of writing humor from famous author John Green.

Here is a List of Ten Things Your (and My) First Chapter Must Deliver

1. Introduce Protagonist(s) and Main Antagonist(s)

You should have a character bio for all your important players, but only give us hints about their looks and character, mostly through action, not a laundry list of traits.

2. Develop Setting (Time and Place), Better Yet Put it in Context

I just learned in a great class by Daniel José Older at the Midwest Writers Workshop that context is developed from place, time and power. ‘Power’ are the forces that define the setting in much greater detail. For example power can be institutions such as governments, religion, education, media, financial system, employment, family, medical and community. Power can also be race, sex and gender, violence, age, family, language and culture. There are more but this gives you an idea what context is influenced by. So in chapter one, we must create a feel of this context the characters are acting in. The use of changing context alone can propel your story forward.

3. Set Up Your Story and Character Arcs
4. Hook the Reader

Your protagonist must face either emotional or physical peril caused by an inciting incident. Not only that, the reader must care about your protagonist.

5. Action or Mystery

The most common advice for writers is to begin the story with action. Blood-dripping murder must happen on page one or else. Maybe. In some genres such as thrillers there is often a gruesome or highly scary incident in the first two pages. If anything I advise to read a hundred books in your genre before deciding on the level of activity. In many cases, setting up the action requires a lighter hand, something more mysterious and brooding, something we feel rather than see yet. All we know is that something is coming at us – our protagonist – and it’s bad.

6. Stakes not Steaks

Your story beginning must include stakes. While it doesn’t have to be life and death, whatever is “at stake” has to matter. It cannot be some unimportant issue like your protagonist losing a knickknack or being scolded for missing school.Yawn, so boring.

7. Tight and to the Point

Avoid long sentences and flowery script.

8. Voice

Developing a strong voice takes practice. Your protagonist’s actions, internal and external dialogue, his choice of words, the flow of his thoughts all determine voice. Is he perky, self-confident or sad? In order for us to follow the protagonist, he must be likable (not perfect by any means). He cannot be whiny nor should he engage in truly despicable activities.

9. Theme

What is your story’s theme? Summarize in one sentence what your book is about. Whatever it is, it must be reflected and hinted at in your first chapter. Can you imagine reading a first chapter that leads you to believe the book is a romance and turns out to be a thriller? Be consistent and establish your manuscript’s theme from the beginning.

10. Add Dialogue

Today’s readers expect dialogue, exchanges of words that hint at each character’s motives, reveal conflict, move the story forward and make the story interesting enough to continue reading.

In addition to setting up your story, you also want to avoid common writing mistakes. Most of them have to do with craft and are easily avoidable. A great book about common mistakes is THE FIRST FIVE PAGES by Noah Lukeman. Consider making it a staple on your book shelf. The author lists the most common mistakes and reasons why agents and publishers turn down manuscripts. Don’t give them that chance. Buy and study the book.

Five glass bottles with the letters of think written across
Think by Ch. Weidinger

Five Common First-chapter Mistakes (There are plenty more…)

1. Presentation

Everything from stained paper and unprofessional fonts to grammar and punctuation

2. Generous Use of Adverbs and Adjectives

Do I need to explain further?

3. Sound

Reading aloud identifies sounds that are too similar or sentences that don’t flow.

4. Comparisons

Analogies, similes and metaphors – the use of too many, the wrong ones or worse, cliches

5. Showing versus Telling

Let characters speak through their feelings, body sensations, language and dialogue. However, too much showing can get in the way of flow, so use a mix of both.

Are we confused yet? When reading this blog, I’m cringing at the task ahead. Again the best advice I can give is to read a hundred opening chapters. See what you like and determine why? Take notes and analyze.

Let it all simmer in your head for a few days or even weeks. Then go back and write your first chapter.