#AuthorToolboxBlogHop: Writing a strong first chapter

 

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
  • Conflict
  • Make the readers care

What you want to avoid:

  • Info-dumps
  • All telling (vs. showing)
  • Too many characters
  • Cliches/stereotypes

 

If you’re interested in reading my posts about why submissions are rejected, you can go here for part one, and here for part two.

Other Author Toolbox Blog Hop posts:

Thanks for reading

 

Advertisements

26 thoughts on “#AuthorToolboxBlogHop: Writing a strong first chapter

Add yours

  1. Great advice, the first chapter is so difficult to get right, I’m constantly tweaking mine to try and improve it, I just hope it’s good enough when I finally reach the query stage! Your tips will come in really handy 😊

    Like

  2. Thanks for this. I’m in edit mode right now, and I’m struggling with an issue that has bothered me since I first conceived of my story. It’s science fiction. It definitely starts on the day things changed. But my main characters are the grandchildren of the character who is at ground zero at the moment of change in chapter 1.

    It all seems to work really well for the people who have read my drafts, but I still worry that chapter 1 starts years too soon.

    Like

  3. Thanks for this! I’ve been struggling with rewriting the first chapter of one of my WIPs for a while, and I’m worried that I have too much of an infodump in that first chapter. It can be tricky finding the exact right place to start a story!

    Thanks again. This has given me a lot to think about! 🙂

    Like

  4. The biggest problem I see in first chapters is “no conflict.” Or if there is a conflict, it is resolved by the end of the chapter and doesn’t lead anywhere.
    If the conflict is good, everything else will fall into place.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I highly recommend people read part 1 and 2 as well, as Hoda has linked above. She’s an insider, so her advice is like something good, but something other than gold, because that would be a cliche. 😉 As always, I’m doubting my own first chapter. I’ve revised it again today. When will the madness end?! Anyway, I’m pretty sure at this point that my first chapter encompasses all you’ve said above. The thing that happens in it though, readers won’t realize it was the inciting until further on in the book, which is what mainly worries me. Thanks for the excellent contribution to the #authortoolboxbloghop Hoda! I’m going to schedule this for a Facebook post probably tomorrow.

    Like

    1. Ahhhh >.< I was fixing up some problems with the website yesterday, and I guess in the process I messed up some others. Thanks for letting me know, I'll fix it!

      Like

  6. All good advice here. Thanks. Avoiding the info dump is really important. It a reader starts to skim during the first page or two, they will probably stop reading. It’s better to save the background information for later. There’s nothing wrong with a reader having a few questions. It might even keep them reading.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Ensuring your first chapter is plot-driven is great advice. Thanks for the clear breakdown of what needs to be in a successful first chapter. I will definitely go over mine and make sure I met those bullet points.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Great post. In a recent online fiction writing course, we did an exercise where we had to start a story with “Emma/Tony said that…” to introduce your story and then cut out the starting phrase. It was a great way to find the voice that could make a story come alive. In school, I used to write the main body of my essays before returning to the intro paragraph. Introductory chapters are even more difficult to get right because the stakes are even higher. It could make or break your opportunity to capture your audience.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Great article! Making that first choice significant – without making it SO SIGNIFICANT that it makes everything else seem less important – is definitely something I’ve struggled with. Often what I do is make it something relatively small my character will blow out of proportion, or that has a small but direct connection to the larger conflict.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. 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.

    ^^^^^^^^^ That is so important for novice writers. Whenever I do workshops with new writers they all seem to give me their MC’s life story in the first few pages. I love a slow reveal.

    All of your tips are top-notch and well appreciated!! Thank you for sharing!

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: