Monday, March 28, 2011


After reading contest entries for the past month, there are a few things I've picked up about first chapters. The following are some of the mistakes you might avoid if you're submitting to a contest or an agent/editor.
  • Beginning the story  too early. Yes, you need to start the story just before the pie hits the fan, but not two years before. Try the same day as the inciting incident. That gives the reader time to become invested in the characters. Drop the reader into the middle of what's happening to the character.
  • Vagueness caused by lengthy exposition and dialogue. Establish time, a sense of place and conflict right away.
  • Non-stop action with no down time to get the character's reaction. Character reaction gives the reader time to catch their breath. 
  • Uninteresting characters. Main characters who are doing things that don't endear them to the reader, i.e. stealing, snooping, or stalking a handsome or beautiful neighbor they want to get to know. You need a "save the baby moment" early on with the hero/heroine to make them sympathetic to the reader.
  • Bad first lines. For instance, starting with a funny first line then leading into a sad death scene. The first line is the story promise. There is nothing funny about death.
  • Paragraph after paragraph of backstory. Prolonged backstory at the beginning doesn't give the reader time to get to know the character. Ever met someone new at a party who unloaded a lot of personal information on you? You couldn't get away fast enough, could you? But with friends and loved ones you will listen.Terry O'dell says that "back story should be trickled in like an IV drip, not poured in through a tube feeding." This is the way it is with characters. If readers get to know them, they will want to read some backstory but little bits sprinkled throughout the story.  You need to know your character's backstory so you can decide what their goals, motivations, conflicts (GMC) are. But the reader doesn't need to know this: they only need to know the GMC's. Providing backstory too early stops the story and removes the mystery about the characters.
  • Chapter ending with no question, foreshadowing, hook, or any reason to turn the page. If the chapter has resolved the story problem then there's no reason to read further.
What are your tips for writing good first chapters?


Anonymous said...

You just keep on astounding me with the advice in this blog. Great stuff. Keep it coming.

Bobbye Terry said...

This is good stuff, Ruby. The backstory at the beginning is the one that gets me the most. Almost every entry I read had anywhere from a page to six pages that could be omitted with no injury to the story.

Here's an example of what you want(from my novella Frozen Assets just published under the name Daryn Cross: Caleb Cash stared upward, panic seizing him as the huge blob of frozen matter exploded. That's as close to the pie hitting the fan as you can get. No one wants to read how the heroine is strolling down Main Street thinking about what she'll do today and how she has had ten years of rotten luck with guys,in some cases the writer even flashing back to show you her rotten experiences.

Which brings me to another thing I hate: flashbacks. Please note that here's a difference between a flashback and a scene taking place earlier that leads you in to the current day. I'm talking about a flashback where the writer says something like, "She thought about how, back at the Senior Prom, George left her on the dance floor," and then you go back in time. Dream sequences can be just as bad, but some do work, and I have used one occasionally, especially in paranormal books.

Bobbye aka Daryn Cross

Nas Dean said...

Thanks for sharing these great tips and advice!

Nas Dean said...

Where's my comment? Blogger ate it?

Thanks for the great tips and advice!

Ruby Johnson said...

Thank you for your kind comments about our blog. I am glad it is helpful to you.

Ruby Johnson said...

Thanks for adding your take on what can be done to improve the first chapter. As a multipublished writer and a judge, this is very helpful.

Ruby Johnson said...

Nas Dean:
Thank you so much for visiting our blog. I hope we've been of help. Look forward to seeing you again!

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