The other day I started a novel on my Nook that my husband recommended. I'd read other books by this author and enjoyed them, and this was a different series with new characters and world. I knew the basic premise going in, but nothing more. After several chapters I found myself getting bored, but probably not for the reasons you'd expect.
Since I'd never read the cover copy, I had no idea what the novel was about.
Since I had no clue what the novel was about, I needed the first few chapters to establish that for me to keep me hooked.
And this novel didn't do that. It focused on things that--as far as I could see--were going nowhere. I mentioned it to my husband, who gave me a quick two-sentence core conflict update. Suddenly I saw those "going nowhere" chapters in a whole new light. The tiniest bit of information made a huge difference.
I find this especially interesting, because back in April I wrote about how revealing cover copy information in the opening scenes can hurt a beginning and a commenter brought up this exact situation. I was still new to e-readers at that time, so I hadn't experienced this yet. I thought the commentor had a great point then, and I wondered how this might affect books in the future.
I see that effect now.
As more people read on e-readers, I suspect first chapters are going to have to do more work than ever before. Not only will they have to do everything a strong opening does, but now they'll have to pick up the slack from missing cover copy--and do it without making those details feel repetitious. (Because I do still believe in the points from my original post)
(More on deadly sins for first chapters here)
We'll have to look at our first chapters as if we know nothing about the story other than maybe genre, and determine if a reader can see where the story is going by what's there--without relying on previous cover copy knowledge.
This probably isn't a bad idea anyway, because a great opening should be able to hook all on its own, but how many novels rely on readers having at least a little knowledge going in?
It made me wonder if my own novel would past the e-reader test. If a reader knew nothing about the book, would the opening chapter still drawn them in?
Naturally, I had to diagnose the issue and find out if there were some common questions we could ask to test this:
1. Is there a sense of a larger story brewing by the end of chapter one?
I think this is the key question, because the novel needs to feel like it's going somewhere, even if readers aren't sure where yet. If it's just characters doing stuff with no real goals or stakes, then the chapter risks feeling aimless. What's even better about this question, is that it holds true for e-readers as well as physical books.
2. Is there a sense of tension about explode or a change about to happen?
Many novels open with the protagonist's normal world, and the problems don't appear until a little farther in, after that norm is established. The "normal" is a contrast to the "abnormal" problem--See this life? Now watch it fall apart. These stories would likely rely on cover copy, because that's where it'll say "and then it all goes wrong." Without knowing that, it'll be harder to show story progression. The tension would have to come from somewhere else to keep readers engaged, but that tension will be even more critical to a reader who doesn't know the hook.
(More on creating tension here)
3. Are the elements in the cover copy mentioned or alluded to in the chapter?
If something is critical enough to make it to the cover copy, odds are it's something that will appear early on in the novel. Even a few small examples or hints can be enough to suggest the larger story in the works. But if nothing on the cover copy makes it into the first chapter? That could be a red flag that e-reader readers might need a little extra help. (Please note that this might not hold true if the first chapter focuses on someone other than the protagonist) I suspect show don't tell will come into heavy use to fix this one.
(More on making critical traits part of the plot here)
These are good questions to ask of any first chapter, because making the opening stronger for those who know nothing about the book will probably also make it stronger for those who do. We might have to work a little harder to accomplish that, but in the end I think our books will be better for it. You can bet I'll be studying every first chapter I read on my e-reader for a while to gain any other insights.
And my own writing? I think The Shifter passes the test, but my current WIP, does not. Luckily, I have a good idea of what to do to fix that, now.
What do you think about e-readers and first chapters? Would your novel pass the e-reader test?
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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