Monday, June 05, 2023

Why No One Is Reading Past Your First Chapter

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

A lackluster first chapter can turn readers off and make them abandon the book before they've given it a fair chance.

I’m a brutal reader. If the first page of a novel doesn’t pique my interest, I rarely give it a try unless the premise is one I’m super interested in. Even when I do keep reading, the book has until the end of the first chapter to hook me or not. If it doesn’t, I don’t buy that book—even if I love the premise.

I can’t tell you how many book samples I’ve downloaded that never won my dollar vote. Some of them just “weren’t for me” books, but often, they aren’t doing enough to make me want to keep reading. I make it to the end of the sample in about half the books I read, and probably buy about half of those. That’s a lot of books that don’t make the cut.

You might think those poor rejected books were just badly written, but most of them were “good books.” The writing was strong, the characters were well-drawn, and the text flowed smoothly. 

But each made a fatal mistake.

They forgot they were telling a story, not setting up a novel.

This is what sets a good story apart from a well-written book.

A good story entices, intrigues, and captures the attention of the reader. It makes them want to keep reading to find out how this all turns out.

A well-written novel has beautiful prose and lovely imagery, but it doesn’t offer readers story questions and intriguing situations that make them curious to know more. It’s cares more about getting specific information into the book than using that information in a way that advances the story.

You may have spent months or even years working on your manuscript, but all of that hard work goes right out the window if readers aren’t enticed to read past the first chapter.

Here are some common reasons first chapters fail to capture readers:

It’s not giving them a reason to keep reading.

Maybe there’s no conflict, or the protagonist doesn’t have a goal. Maybe it’s way too much world building or infodumping about how things work. It might even be a lack of reasons why this story is worth reading about.

Make sure you're introducing conflict and giving your protagonist a clear goal to work towards. If your reader doesn't have any reason to care about what happens next, they won't bother sticking around to find out.

(Here’s more with 4 Steps to Establish the Beginning of Your Novel)

It’s confusing them.

In an effort to be mysterious, you forget to add the details readers need to understand what’s going on. The conversations between characters are either so vague they could refer to anything, or so specific they lack the context to make sense out of them.

Make sure that the events and characters are introduced clearly and that the reader understands what’s going on. You don’t want readers to feel like they need a road map to navigate your story.

While it's good to leave some things up to the reader's imagination, you don't want to be so vague that they have trouble following along. Make sure you include enough details and context to ground the reader in the story. Conversations between characters should have a purpose, not just be filler.

(Here’s more with 4 Signs You Might Be Confusing, Not Intriguing, in Your Opening Scene)

It’s not sharing enough.

While you do want to avoid infodumping, readers need to know basic information to draw them into the story. Make sure that the reader understands the setting, the characters, and the conflict, without overwhelming them with unnecessary details.

Aim for a balance between enough information to understand what's happening without bogging the scene down with too many details.

(Here’s more with Get What's in Your Head Onto the Page)

They don’t like the characters.

If the protagonist is unlikable or unrelatable, readers probably won’t care what happens to them. Make sure that your characters are well-rounded and interesting, and readers can empathize with them. Give your characters compelling motivations and flaws so readers have a reason to root for them and become emotionally invested in their story.

(Here’s more with The Triangle of Likability: How to Make Your Characters Come Alive)

They can’t tell what the story is about.

If readers aren’t sure what the story is about or what the conflict is, they probably won’t bother to read on. Make sure that the story’s premise is clear and readers understand what’s at stake. It could just be my pet peeve, but readers really should be able to guess what the story’s about from the first chapter—even if it's just a bare bones sense of where it's going.

(Here’s more with Where Does Your Novel's Conflict Come From?)

The narrative-to-description-to-action balance is off.

You don't want to overload readers with lengthy descriptions or infodumping, but you also don't want to jump straight into the action without setting the scene. Aim for a mix of narrative, description, and action so readers can keep up.

The right balance here will vary depending on the pace and intent of the scene. Faster-paced scenes might typically have less description and more action, while slower-paced scenes have more narrative and description as characters process whatever horrible thing you just threw at them.

Remember—the goal isn’t to give readers everything right away, but to tease them with just enough to capture their attention and spark curiosity so they keep reading to find out more.

(Here’s more with How to Write Description Without Going Overboard)

If the first chapter doesn’t hook your reader, they’ll never get to the rest of the novel.

A dull opening chapter sets the tone for the rest of the book and gives readers the impression that the story isn’t worth their time. Don’t focus so much on setting up the novel that you forget the ultimate goal of a first chapter is to hook the reader. Take the time you need to craft a strong opening, and you'll be well on your way to creating a novel that readers can't put down.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five minutes and examine the first chapter of your current work in progress. Put yourself in the shoes of a reader who's never seen your story before. Does the opening grab your attention and make you want to keep reading? Or are there issues that need to be addressed? Make a list of anything you feel could be better and revise as needed.

What's your biggest pet peeve when it comes to first chapters?

For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

Go step-by-step through plotting and writing a novel. Learn how to find and develop ideas, brainstorm stories from that first spark of inspiration, develop the right characters, setting, plots and subplots, as well as teach you how to identify where your novel fits in the market, and if your idea has what it takes to be a series.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure offers ten self-guided workshops with more than 100 different exercises to help you craft a solid novel. Learn how to:
  • Create compelling characters readers will love
  • Choose the right point of view for your story
  • Determine the conflicts that will drive your plot (and hook readers!)
  • Find the best writing process for your writing style
  • Create a solid plot from the spark of your idea
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure also helps you develop the critical elements for submitting and selling your novel once it’s finished. You’ll find exercises on how to:
  • Craft your one-sentence pitch
  • Create your summary hook blurb
  • Develop a solid working synopsis And so much more!
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is an easy-to-follow guide to writing your novel or fixing a novel that isn’t quite working. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Wow! This is a pretty comprehensive look at the credibility of a first chapter, into a nutshell bursting at the seams! It's going into my "How-To Craft" folder, and I'll be sharing it with fellow writer friends.

  2. Thank you for sharing this practical , clear approach. Must admit I have discovered I am prone to info-dumping although this is the first time I have heard the term. So valuable.🙏🙏🙏

    1. You're most welcome. It's pretty common, especially in a first draft. we often need to dump what's in our heads onto the page to know what we have and what works best.

  3. Thank you for this excellent post, Janice. I think some of my first chapters could do with reworking. I will be keeping this post.

    1. You're most welcome, and I hope it helps. I always need to redo my first (and last) chapters a few times. But the ones I DO get right from the start, always seem to be easier to write. I bet there's a reason why :)

  4. Thanks Maria! I chuckled over your analogy. I've both met and been one of those writers (grin).

    That's got to be so frustrating for writers, especially if they're getting negative feedback and not knowing why.

    First chapters are so tough and have so much pressure put on them. It's a wonder any writers ever gets past them!

  5. What a lovely blog you have created and I am impressed with your writing style. I am also a regular reader and still enjoying reading each article on weekend. Would you mind writing a fresh blog post for My blog, LEKH Magazine, it has international traffic. Many writers and bloggers have already started contributing to my publication. By doing a guest post drive traffic to your website from the author bio. I have also done interviews of famous writers, actors and other famous people. If you are available, please do let me know.

    1. Thank you. Please email me and we can discuss it.

  6. Thanks for this helpful article. Does your book, Understanding show, don’t tell, cover telegraphing? Is that just another word for a particular type of telling?

    1. You're most welcome. It might while discussing other things, but there's nothing dedicated to it. I did write an article on telegraphing though, so here's that link:
      If you have any questions, feel free to email me.

  7. Janice, I almost have tears in my eyes thinking of this premise. You have cast aside some of the greatest writers of all time as you could not be bothered to give them ten minutes of your time. Sartre, Hesse, Proust, Sir Walter Scott, Voltaire, Rousseau, Brecht, my god, I am feeling sorry for you. You cannot have read the original histories as well, the sagas, the Greek mythos, how have you survived without Sophocles or Aeschylus? Shit, the first chapter of the Iliad is a little slow. And then the Romans and Grand masters of the East. You are shutting yourself off from some of the best literature ever written.
    Please, take a deep breath and reconsider. Please.
    You will be grateful I suggested this if you read those works.

    1. I've read plenty of classics in my life, including many on your list and those off of it. I don't judge classic literature by the same standards, because they were written with an utterly different set of standards and sensibilities than modern novels.

      And frankly, most classics couldn't get published today for all the reasons I mentioned in my post. Some hold up wonderfully, but a lot don't. They're not typically what modern readers are looking for when to go book shopping. That doesn't make them any "less" anything, but my post was about modern readers and modern novels.

      Classics have just as good a chance at piquing my interest as any other book. And like other novels, some do, and some don't.