The one benefit to first chapters being the most-read of all chapters (even if we decide we don't like the book we at least read the beginning), is that there's a lot of data on what works and what doesn't out there. If we get stuck or we know something is off and don't know what, there's bound to be multiple articles written to help up solve the puzzle and get back on track.
One such article is about seven reasons agents stop reading your first chapter, sent to me by a friend several years ago. It's a great breakdown of common problems, so let's look at those reasons and explore ways to fix them.
Generic or Slow Beginnings
I'm going to combine these two, because they can each be solved in the same basic ways.
Your manuscript starts with mundane, boring things happening or plain vanilla description--the daily life of your protagonist. While it's usually good to show the protagonist's life "as it was" before the big story problem hits them, you have to be careful about what pieces you show. Look at your protagonist's life again and find something that shows conflict as well as shows what their life is like. Even the most average day can have a moment where the protagonist wanted something and someone was keeping them from it, even if it's just the last doughnut in the pack.
Look for (or create) moments where:
- Your protagonist is trying to get or accomplish something important to them.
- Your protagonist is displaying a trait that will be important or necessary later in the story.
- The problem at hand is interesting and makes the reader curious about what's happening.
- Note: "What is going on?" is not a legitimate story question. If the reader is lost, they won't get hooked. You want to find questions that have specific details. "Why is that girl stealing chickens?" "What are they doing on that space station?" "Why is that hobbit so obsessed with jewelry?"
Trying Too Hard
Your manuscript is full of "fancy writing" that's trying to show you know how to write. But great writing is almost always invisible. Readers get caught up in the story and only the truly wonderful lines jump out and become things they remember. Think of it like great lines from a movie, the catchphrases that stay with you long after the movie has faded from your mind.
To help fix this, don't focus so much on being descriptive. Not everything has to look like something or be metaphoric. Great writing has a rhythm and a elegance to it that's more than using a lot of fancy words. Read the pages out loud to hear their flow. Read the pages of your favorite book out loud next and hear the difference. Study those favorite pages and really examine how the author put those words together and what they're doing on multiple levels. It's not just about the words, but the story and characters and the emotion underneath.
(Here's more on overwriting and purple prose)
Too Much Information (the TMI kind, not the backstory kind)
There are some thing folks just don't want to know about. If your manuscript is being overly descriptive about something gross or personal (do we really need a bathroom scene?), cut it. Look at your manuscript and ask yourself why you choose that as your opening scene. What were you trying to show? To do? What emotion or thought did you want the reader to come away with? Now think about what other scenes you can write that get all that in there without describing things best left unsaid.
This is probably an easier one to fix. If the cliches are part of the text, kill the cliches. But if the cliche is the actual opening, well, that takes a bit more work. How do you know if your opening is cliched? Some of the more common ones are:
- Someone waking up in the morning.
- Someone looking in the mirror and describing themselves.
- Someone getting a "message," be it a phone call, letter, or arrival of a mystical person with information.
- Someone leaving on a trip.
- Someone writing in a journal to "tell you about what happened."
- Someone in the middle of dire straights with no context for what's going on.
(Here's more on what's so bad about cliches)
Loss of Focus
Your manuscript wanders and readers are left wondering what's the point. This one can take a bit of shuffling to get into shape, depending on what the underlying problem is. Most common culprits are:
You don't know what the protagonist's goal is: If you're not sure what the protagonist is trying to accomplish in the scene, it can ramble on and seem pointless (because it actually is pointless from a structure standpoint). Take a step back and think about what your protagonist is after. Then tweak the text so that goal is clear, and the action your protagonist takes is to achieve that goal in some way.
There are too many things your protagonist wants: Trying to shove all the story goals and subplots into one chapter will usually just overload the reader, and make the manuscript feel scattered and unfocused. Pick one goal that has the best hook, and go for it. The rest can unfold as the story does. Readers want to eat the dessert a spoonful at a time, not shove the entire sundae down their throats at once. (ooo brain freeze)
You're trying to show what everyone wants: Your protagonist has a clear goal, but so does the secondary hero, the bad guy and the three supporting characters. Everyone has a story arc and all those arcs are being thrown at the reader at the same time. While having arcs for everyone is good, seeing them all at once makes it hard for the reader to know who the main character is and who they should be rooting for. Show the protagonist's goal, and let the other goals come out once the reader is hooked.
(Here's more on narrative focus)
Unrealistic Internal Narrative
This one is usually a point of view (POV) issue. What's going on in the protagonist's head doesn't match what's going on in the story. When you're running for your life, you won't notice what color the drapes are unless you're thinking about using them to escape.
To fix this, look at your POV and what's going on in the scene. What would someone in that situation think? Internalization isn't a free pass to describe what's around them. It's a tool to let the reader know who your POV is and how they think. If you want to show the drapes, then write it in a way that feels believable to the scene. Let the POV look at the drapes and think about how to use them to shimmy out the window. Show the antique wood carvings as how they provide hand holds to climb up on top of the furniture. Insert those details in ways that are relevant to the POV's state of mind, and the scene at hand.
(Here's more on POV and internalization)
If a reader doesn't like the beginning, the odds of them getting to the middle are slim. If an agent doesn't like your beginning, well, the odds of getting a full request are even slimmer. Make sure yours is the best it can be.
How do you feel about beginnings? Love them? Hate them?
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions!
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
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