In previous posts, I wrote about the top reasons why submissions are rejected. These posts were written based on my experience as an editorial intern at Entangled Publishing. They were short and straight to the point. For Raimey Gallant’s #AuthorToolboxBlogHop, I’ve decided to expand on some of those points – starting with the first chapter.
In most submissions I read, the story doesn’t start at the right place. It isn’t necessary to start at the very beginning (MC waking up and starting her day, first day of school…). We don’t want a slow-paced beginning, but it will be if the MC’s every mundane activity is listed until we get to the actual plot. One thing to ask is “If I remove this entire scene/chapter, will it change the plot in any way?” If the answer is no, then you’re probably not starting at the right place.
The first chapter isn’t meant to act only as a setup: “This is my MC. This is her best friend. This is the love interest. This is her enemy. Here’s a bunch of information on all of them – end of chapter! Now the plot can begin…” A lot of first chapters seem to follow this formula.
Instead, here’s what your first chapter should really contain:
- Yes, we need to be introduced to your MC. This doesn’t mean their entire life story needs to be revealed in the first chapter. Avoid info-dumps, and let us learn about them gradually. But while we don’t need to know everything about them right away, we still need to know enough to care. If we don’t care about the MC, we don’t care about their story. Show (don’t tell) us who they are through their words, actions, hobbies, flaws… Again, we don’t want everything, but enough to hook us and make us want to follow their journey. Make them relatable.
- Introduce a conflict/choice for the MC. Something needs to happen in the first chapter that contributes to the plot. There should be a change for the MC in this first chapter. Presenting a problem or a difficult choice for the MC is a way to hook readers. If nothing happens in this first chapter – why would we (or an agent/editor) want to keep reading? You want them to think “I want to know what happens” – this is what leads to requests.
- Make sure it’s a significant problem. If the problem is something that doesn’t really affect the MC, if the readers are thinking “so what?” then it’s not a significant problem. Another sign that it’s not a significant enough problem is if it’s something that is solved easily in that first chapter, or the choice was one the MC didn’t struggle with it.
Those are things you want to include in your first chapter. One thing you want to avoid is clichés. Many agents/editors will say they like tropes (if there’s a fresh twist), but clichés are a different thing. When reading your work, we’re not just checking to see if we like it, we also have to make sure it will stand out in the market. If your chapter is filled with clichés/stereotypes or storylines that we’ve seen a hundred times before, it’s not going to stand out. Here are some common ones I’ve noticed in a lot of submissions:
- MC is the new girl at school, immediately gets the attention of a hot guy (or two), but her new friend likes the hot guy too – and let’s not forget about the evil cheerleader determined to ruin the MC’s happiness, even though she has no reason to dislike her.
- MC is an outcast at school, and doesn’t believe she’s anything special (and constantly putting herself down), but somehow she still gets the attention of the popular guy.
- MC leaves an abusive relationship to run into the arms of another guy who “saves her”.
Briefly put, here’s what you want in a first chapter:
- A sympathetic MC
- That it takes place on the day things change
- Make the readers care
What you want to avoid:
- All telling (vs. showing)
- Too many characters
Thanks for reading