Now I’m not saying that doing these things are automatically wrong, but why hurt your chances of getting a book sale or scaring off potential readers?
This list is a combo of first chapter blunders that will probably turn-off readers right away, and reasons why I won't buy your book. Or I won't get past page thirty...
1) The opener has long blocks of straight narration and it is all in italics.
Reading italics is hard on the eyes. Short sections are fine, but pages and pages are difficult to read in my opinion. If I open the “Look Inside” feature of your book on Amazon and see text in thick blocks without much white space in italics, then I’m most likely not going to buy your book. I’m going to buy someone else’s novel.
Maybe you figured since it was a flashback that the scene needs to be in italics. It doesn’t. Maybe it is a prologue, so you wanted to make that clear to the reader. Don’t put it in italics. Maybe you thought it would look cool if the font was all in italics. It doesn’t.
I’ve worked with some amazing professional editors, like the talented Rochelle French, over the years and it helped me learn and grow as a writer. Rochelle gave me this same advice once. Now I’m sharing it with you.
2) Your opener reads like a prologue.
While a first chapter should have some suspense, foreshadowing, and tension, the problem is that why should the reader care about these characters if they already know the bad thing that’s going to happen to them? Readers are just meeting your characters for the first time and they haven’t yet formed a connection with them. So they might not care if your hero will be abducted by aliens , or he is going to lose his job, or he is about to be hit by a car.
It is true that the opener should start with some tension and action, but first I would offer the reader a glimpse of the characters “normal world” before you have them run into a burning building. That way, the reader cares if they make it out alive.
Don’t cheat your readers out of solving the mystery or telling them all the bad stuff that’s going to happen to the character(s) in the opener. To me, that’s like a huge SPOILER ALERT. Why should I spend my time and money on your book if I already know that the character will die or something else terrible is going to happen?
My advice is to “hint” at all the bad coming your character’s way. BUT please don’t tell me about it. Don’t dump it out in the opener. Leave a trail of mysterious breadcrumbs for me to follow.
3) There are no excerpts on your blog, or, website, or wattpad, or on Amazon.
If I discover a new writer, I want to read a sample of their work. Writers, please, do yourself a favor and post them EVERYWHERE. Give readers a glimpse of your awesome story and reel them in. Then make sure the purchase links are in plain sight, because if your excerpt is awesome, I don’t want to waste my time trying to figure out where to buy it. I want to start reading. Now.
Make certain your excerpt is either the opener (you don’t need to post the entire first chapter) or some super intriguing scene that will immediately grab the reader’s interest. And make it a cliffhanger. Yes, a huge, exciting, I-gotta-know-what-happens-next cliffhanger. Get them to buy the book.
4) All backstory. Nothing happens, but a long info-dump of setup aka backstory.
The main rule of first chapter writing, is do not include backstory!
Why it is not needed…
Because I don’t know your characters. I haven’t meet them yet, so I don’t care that he/she lived on a farm and had a broken arm at age seven. I could care less if they’re an ex-cop who’s been divorced three times with five kids to support.
All I care about is what is happening NOW. Not what happened two years ago.
In order to get readers to care about the character and his/her backstory is to get them interested in what’s actually happening in the story now. Our job as writers is to convince readers that this story is worthy of their time and money.
One way to do that is to pretend that the reader already knows as much about these characters as you do, then indicate some important event or a fascinating occurrence that happened previously. But please don't tell me what it is just yet.
You’ll make readers naturally curious to know how your characters ended up in this particular situation with whatever specific burden of emotional baggage they’re lugging around.
You have an entire novel to include snippets of backstory into your character’s past. There is a time and place for backstory. The first chapter is not the time, nor the place.
5) No “Voice” in the opener.
Even if nothing much is really happening in your opener, if the “voice” is well-written, then I’ll keep reading.
Just as everyone has their own characteristic way of speaking or expressing themselves, a writer’s characters should also have a distinctive “voice” that clearly comes across in the narrative.
Interesting characters with interesting “voices” can draw a reader into a story without any big event taking place. Their unique view of the world can set them apart from other books in your genre.
Besides all the other key ingredients a writer needs to have in their opener, “voice” is among the most vital. Spend some time getting to know your characters. Fill out character interviews and/or profiles to gain insight into their personalities, then let that shine through in your narrative.
6) No hint of conflict or “hook” moment within the opening scene.
In the first chapter, I like a hint at the dilemma. I want some foreshadowing on the problems that the main character is going to have to face throughout the storyline. I want to know that there are going to be obstacles in his/her way from the get-go.
That is a major mistake that a lot of new writers make. They fall in love with their characters and coddle them. Please don’t. You can love ’em to pieces, but make their lives VERY difficult. Everybody has ups and downs. Good days and bad ones.
Add some conflict and tension in your first chapter. Then hint at more bad things to come for this character.
This leads into the next thing your opener needs…
7) A huge turn-off for me is a character without a goal.
The “passive character” to me is one without any motivation of goals. These types just drift through scenes without any real connection to events or happenings.
The “passive character” is one that does nothing to solve the mystery or stop the killer. They observe the story rather than experience it, which creates narrative distance. And a writer NEVER wants that to happen.
The easiest fix is to give your main character(s) goals throughout the narrative to try to obtain. In the first chapter, have your character either mention a goal or actually show he/she trying to achieve one. The main characters need a clear goal. But again, don't make it too easy.
For example, your character is thirsty (motivation). She/he needs a glass of water (goal), so they go into the kitchen to get a drink. But when they turn on the facet, no water comes out (conflict). Now they have a dilemma and a problem to solve. It turns out that when she/he turns on the TV that the Earth’s water supply has mysteriously vanished overnight (foreshadowing). End chapter.
The reader is intrigued now. They’ll keep reading to find out the “whys” and “hows” of this weirdness, and most importantly, how this will affect the character’s own life.
8) First impressions really do matter.
Ever been on a blind date, or met someone in person for the first time? Your immediate reaction to someone has to do with a lot of different factors. Your instant like or dislike of them can be judgy, but we all do it unconsciously.
The first time I meet your characters, I need to either like them or empathize with them right away. (This also ties in closely with number 5: “voice.”)
If your character is uninteresting or blandly written, I might not keep reading. If he’s a major jerk who kicks puppies and pushes old ladies into the street, I might not keep reading. (Although, I may wonder why they’re such a douchebag.)
And avoid making him/her too perfect (Mary-Sue types) or without any real flaws. Real people have character flaws, and bad or annoying habits. Everyone has some emotional baggage.
Try to make your character seem as “real” as possible. Give the reader a peek at their interests or hobbies or personality tics. Give them phobias or quirks from the start. Create interesting characters that will attract your potential readership.
For example, your character suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder that alienates nearly everyone with whom he interacts with on a daily basis. He even has such strange quirks that he avoids stepping on sidewalk cracks while walking through town due to a superstition of bad luck. Yet his OCD gets overlooked once he befriends a small dog. (Yeah, this was borrowed from a movie.)
Unique or "real-to-life" characters and “voice” will always grab a reader and yank them into your story-world from page one.
9) First line is weak and boring.
The first sentence matters. I don’t care what other editors or writers say. Deny it all you want, but an amazing first line is like a promise of good things to come.
For me personally, if the first sentence (and paragraph) has a great "hook," I will buy the book 9 out of 10 times.
I always read Amazon's "Look Inside" feature to inspect the first sentence and page of any novel before I buy it. I purchase 99% of my books from Amazon, but if it doesn’t engage me within first page, then I won't buy it.
Rewrite that first sentence like a “pitch” that will make your book the next NY Times bestseller. Make it clever. Make it emotionally-driven. Make it powerful enough that the reader has no choice but to keep reading.
10) Nothing happens in the first five pages. No action.
Engaging the reader’s curiosity is the number one thing that the first chapter MUST do above all else.
An interesting event must grasp the reader’s attention from page one. This can be an extraordinary location, a distinctive “voice,” a shocking incident, lots of interesting dialogue, or a hint of conflict. The point is to seize the reader’s attention quickly. You only have one or two pages before the reader tosses your book aside and buys the next one.
There's no need for heart-pounding action. But do make certain that the characters don’t give anything away yet. Have them doing SOMETHING. Add some action and conflict from page one.
For example, the character is about to take their driving test (interesting event). He/she is nervous because without a license (motivation), they can’t get a job delivering pizzas. They desperately need this second job to help pay for medication (goal) that their sickly child needs to live.
In the example, the character is doing something—taking a driver’s test. So it gives the reader action, along with the other necessary ingredients, like a goal and motivation, and even potential conflict if they fail this test.
11) No dialogue. Only introspection.
Huge sections of introspection or description are boring. Sure, internal-monologues give insight into characterization and your character’s thought-process, but without action and dialogue thrown into the mix, it’s a total snooze-fest.
When I open a book and see nothing but long chunks of text without much “white space,” I already know that nothing is happening. It’s either all backstory or introspection.
Your first chapter doesn’t have to be exciting, or even have a thrilling car chase, but have you’re characters doing something, and get them talking. Fast.
Personally, I love dialogue. The more you have in your book, the more insight I’ll gain about your lovely characters. The more engaged I’ll become. Dialogue moves a plot forward immediately and creates lots of white space.
While the characters are yakking, have them doing something so they’re not just “talking heads” floating around in space. Even if they’re just walking their dog while chatting with their BFF over what a slut Amy Waltburg is for stealing her boyfriend, you have an interesting opener.Make the dialogue short and snappy. Don’t let characters ramble on or give long speeches. Have them talk about things significant to the plot, or have it reveal characterization. Leave out the small talk and “As you know…” snippets. Have the characters discuss a problem or hint at one in the coming chapters.
This will also help with any pacing issues.
12) There is no inciting incident that rocks the main character's world.
Give the reader an enigma to unravel. The plot, the events unfolding within the first chapter, should give the reader an immediate mystery to solve, something to feel anxious about, something to flip the page.
The “incident” doesn’t need to be earth-shattering. But include something that either hints at a disastrous event to come, or have something actually happen that upsets the character’s world.
It could be as simple as a phone ringing in the middle of the night, or maybe the character gets mugged, or he/she stubbles across a lost child and offers to help them find their mommy.
Now, you could save the “life-changing event” until chapter two or three; however, you still need something that happens to indicate that this character’s nice and quiet life is about to get turned upside down and flipped inside out.
Which brings me to my next point…
13) No unanswered questions.
Each chapter (scene) should either create unanswered questions within the reader’s mind or have a whole new set of questions. It’s an integral human psychological need to want to find out the why in a story. Unanswered questions do that for you.
For example, your character is in the Witness Protection Program, but the writer doesn’t include “why” this character is in it within the first chapter. That automatically creates questions in the reader. (That’s a good reason to leave out the backstory, too.)
Did they witness a crime? Testify against a drug lord? Rat out their bank robbing buddies as a plea bargain?
Or maybe drop some titillating hints at some dark and sordid past. For example, your character doesn’t want anyone to know why they moved to this small town, or why he/she only leave the house after sundown.
Make those questions juicy. Mesmerizing. Attention-grabbing. In other words, make the reader feel like they just HAVE to know what happens next, or why the character acts a certain way, or what circumstances led them to having all this crazy emotional baggage, or what secret they're trying so desperately to keep hidden.
14) The first chapter is 30 pages or longer. Or way too short.
Chapter length is a debatable among most writers. I think genre has a big impact on chapter length. Personally, I like them shorter because it feels as though the story moves at a faster pace.
A good rule is to keep each chapter under 10 to 15 double-spaced pages. Keep your first chapter short. Keep it engaging. Make it a teaser. Don’t give any key plot points away just yet. Create those must-know unanswered questions.
You need a find a balance. Too short and the reader doesn’t have time to care about your characters enough to keep reading. Too long and it obviously needs trimming.
Start with your character doing something. Add in some spicy dialogue. Hint at some foreshadowing. Include some characterization. Make sure the scene has some conflict or tension. Have lots of answered questions. Then leave it on a page-turning cliffhanger.
15) No mention of where or when this story takes place.
If I read your opener and it doesn’t give me any idea what year it is or the location, I won’t connect with the setting or circumstances. All scenes need time-makers.
Just a short sentence or two is all you need.
Some genres, like science fiction and high-fantasy, need lots of world-building to set the scene. Just try not to go overboard with the description. The best way to include the setting and location is to have your characters interact with it and incorporate a few of the five senses.
Holly pushed open the solid oak door and stepped into her childhood bedroom. It had been years since she’d been back to her hometown of Livermore. She’d missed this warm California weather since she had moved to Seattle in 2010.
Light blue striped wallpaper with posters of rock bands covered the walls. A plush azure rug and two overstuffed armchairs flanked a dank fireplace. A queen-sized bed, draped with a sheer curtain dominated the room. The scent of lilacs drifted in the air. She moved further into the space and heaved a sigh.
Out the single window, the melancholy song of a Blue Jay filled her ears. Holly leaned a hip against the bulky dresser. Her hand lightly trailed the dust coating its smooth surface and she wiped her fingers off on her jeans. Tears spilled from her big brown eyes. Her heart ached with guilt. This was the last place she’d seen her father, before she’d stormed out the front door twenty years ago.
Explanations of events are much more dramatic if your characters are directly involved and experiencing them along with the reader. Readers may skim long pages of description; however, if it is slipped in as part of the action, then it is absorbed by the reader almost without being noticed, and enhances the scene. Always try to mix description with dialogue, actions, and the reactions of your characters. Try to include the year, place, and five senses in your opener.
Even if you've already published a few books or you're just starting out in the indie publishing world, there's always more to learn on the craft of fiction and book promotion. If you're determined to take your writing career seriously and make it to the next level, you need to make sure that your author branding and book packaging are "genre specific" to hit your target audience and build a loyal readership.
What about an opener will turn you off as a reader?
What grabs your attention about a story right away?
What other mistakes do you feel writers make in their first chapters?
Let me know your thoughts in the comments!