Before I discuss some of the common mistakes, often associated with first chapters, I should emphasize that there are always going to be exceptions. If you can make something work that I’ve warned against doing, then go for it.
That said, here is my “how not to” advice, so that hopefully you can hook your readers, with an awesome opening to your novel. That is, as opposed to them slamming down your book, to potentially never pick it up again.
Beware of slow starts, which are tedious, and can occur for various reasons, one of which is the inclusion of too much backstory.
Some of this information will be essential, but it needs to be sprinkled into your narrative and dialogue throughout – as opposed to info dumped, right at the start.
Also, although it’s important for you to know the backstory thoroughly, it may not always be necessary to tell everything to the reader. The story needs to move forward at a decent pace.
Too much description and scene setting is another reason why openings can often drag.
This tends to be a particular problem for writers who have read mainly, or exclusively, the classics. We live in a different age to those authors, and few modern readers have the patience to wade through lengthy descriptive paragraphs.
And the start of the novel is the worst place for these, as there is such a high percentage chance of the person losing interest, and abandoning your novel.
Some writers go too far in the opposite direction, however. They decide to start with a bang – perhaps literally – or a chase.
That’s exciting, right? Well, no – not necessarily: without context, or having given the reader any reason to actually care about your characters.
The inciting incident needs to happen near the start of the novel. It doesn’t necessarily need to happen literally right away. Some build up and introductory paragraphs are usually required.
I’m not going to say too much about first sentences because, actually, most writers overthink them.
It’s likely that, in revisions, these will end up changing, anyway. I think that, on the whole, most people will read more than one sentence, when deciding whether a book is for them.
Yes, some great novels have “wow” opening lines, but many actually don’t. Just write a provisional first sentence, and move on. If you don’t proceed until you have the perfect one liner, you won’t make the necessary progress, to actually finish the rest of the book.
Having said that I don’t want to talk much about first lines, I do need to discuss one, very specific type.
The issue of whether or not to open with dialogue is frequently debated, and personally, I feel that it can work, but often doesn’t.
If it comes naturally, for your particular novel, then go with this approach, but I definitely don’t recommend doing so routinely, in an attempt to hook the reader.
It’s a technique that’s been overdone, and can be effective but, like anything else in writing, shouldn’t be done for the sake of it.
Avoid starting with a cliché, such as a character waking up.
For some reason, many writers still tend to believe that they should begin any new story at the start of the protagonist’s day. This simply isn’t true.
It can be any time of day, and the character can be in any location. Where and when to start depends upon the needs of the story, and you might need to experiment with this.
Another common first chapter cliché is to have the character look into a mirror – or possibly, some other reflective surface, such as a shop window.
Said character will then describe his or her own appearance – and often do so in detail. It’s understandable that writers might resort to this, because it can be challenging to convey physical descriptions of narrators, and it’s especially difficult in the first person.
It’s also a consideration that you do need to give the information as soon as possible, if you’re going to at all, having introduced a character. I mean, readers aren’t going to be too happy, if they have already started to visualise the a dark-haired woman, only to be told that she is, in fact, blonde.
That said, the reflection method is neither interesting nor original, so you really should try to work out another way to get the information across. No-one said that writing was easy, right?
Something else to keep in mind is the introduction of various characters.
If you tend to have larger casts, as I do, you should look for ways to bring different characters in gradually.
It’s similar to real life, in that, if you’re introduced to an overwhelming number of new people in rapid succession, your mind can’t take in much information about each person. You may end up mixing up people’s names, or forgetting who has said this or that, or does this or that job.
When reading your novel, you don’t want your readers to be experiencing that level of confusion.
I actually use a party – the twenty-first birthday of my protagonist’s brother – as a chance to introduce quite a few important characters. However, the party doesn’t occur until the third chapter, by which time, the reader already knows some of my fictional people.
One more point to consider is prologues.
Sometimes they’re needed, and they can be excellent, when done well – but, if you do use one and it wasn’t really necessary, you could lose the reader, before you even reach Chapter One.
That doesn’t exactly come under advice about first chapters, but it does relate, and I felt that it was worth mentioning here.
I haven’t written a post about prologues as such, but have written one on epilogues, and some of the information applies to both.
I hope that these tips help you to avoid some of the common mistakes, when writing your own first chapters.
If you’ve already written a first chapter, they might be worth considering, when it comes to revisions.
Please also take a look at my post about general fiction writing mistakes to avoid.