Wednesday, March 21, 2012

First chapters That Keep’em Coming Back For More

About the Author:
Julie Compton is the internationally published author of the legal thriller,TELL NO LIES, set in her hometown of St. Louis, Missouri. Born and raised in St. Louis,where she attended Washington University for both undergraduate and law school, Julie also spent a number of years in Boston, MA and Philadelphia, PA before settling in Central Florida.
She began her legal career in St. Louis, but most recently worked as a trial attorney for the U.S.Department of Justice in Wilmington, Delaware. She gave up law to pursue writing full-time when her family moved to Florida in 2003. She now splits her time between her primary home near Orlando and a second home in Daytona Beach Shores. RESCUING OLIVIA is her second novel. Learn more at


I recently attended Sleuth Fest, the annual mystery writer’s conference sponsored by the Florida Chapter of Mystery Writers of America. One of the workshops I presented, along with fellow author Sharon Potts, was called “Writing to Avoid Rejection.” We focused our presentation on first chapters. If you’re lucky enough to have an agent and/or editor ask to see some pages, your first chapter must keep that agent or editor’s attention and leave him wanting more. Plan to self-publish? Substitute “reader” for “agent or editor” and your goal remains the same. You might have a great idea, an exciting plot, an interesting cast of characters, a unique setting, and a totally killer ending, but your reader will never know about any of that unless you keep him reading.

So how do you do that? To some extent, writing is like a recipe. We can all agree that certain basic ingredients are necessary to bake a cake, but the end result will be different for different bakers. Some will add new and unusual ingredients, some will make substitutions, some will change the measurements. All of them hope the end result is delicious.

The following is a list of questions Sharon and I created for writers to consider when reviewing a first chapter. The answers will help you determine whether you’ve created a delicious treat that leaves a reader hungering for more, or whether your creation might need to spend a bit more time in the oven.

  • Does the first sentence hook the reader?

  • Have you given the reader something that makes him want to keep reading after the opening scene?

  • Do you, as the writer, know the problem that will be resolved by the end of the book, and does the first chapter begin to identify or set that up? A first chapter doesn’t have to identify the main conflict, but what happens in Chapter One should somehow be important to it.

  • Do you, as the writer, know what the protagonist wants (both emotionally and in terms of the plot)? How are these goals set up or impacted by what takes place in Chapter One? Again, the reader doesn’t necessarily have to know the answer to these questions by the end of the chapter, but you, as the writer, should.

  • Is there action? (This doesn’t necessarily mean “action thriller” type action, but rather, forward movement.)

  • Does the opening chapter reflect the “DNA” of the rest of the book? Is it consistent with style, tone, and type of book?

  • Is the POV character’s “voice” consistent with that character, even in third person?

  • Is he/she likable? Your main character will have faults (or should have), but you’ll want your reader to like your protagonist enough to want to follow his story.

  • Does the story begin at the right point (when things have been set into motion by what is sometimes referred to as ‘the inciting incident’), or is there too much set up and back story?

  • Is there too much information in Chapter One that can better be dribbled in later in the book? Your first chapter should have key information without giving everything away or confusing the reader.

  • Are there too many characters introduced at once?

  • Are there too many distracting flashbacks?

  • Are all senses addressed—see, touch, smell, hear, taste?

  • Does the reader know where the story takes place (in a general sense, at least)?

Remember, these are considerations, not rules. Think about them, but don’t let them constrain your creativity. In fact, don’t even look at this list when you sit down to write your first chapter. Come back to it after you have completed a draft of your novel, when you have a better sense of your characters (especially your protagonist) and their goals. Until then, just write, have fun, experiment. Most of all, don’t be afraid to try some new ingredients.


Julie Compton is the internationally published author of two novels, Tell No Lies and Rescuing Olivia, both from St. Martin's Press.

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Thank you for stopping by. Julie will be available later in the day to answer questions and comments.


Caroline Clemmons said...

Julie, so nice to "meet" you and read your valuable post. I envy you attending Sleuth Fest. Thanks for sharing your expertise with us today.

Thorne said...

Thanks for posting a great article. Good questions every writer should consider when looking at their first chapters or any chapter for that matter.

Ruby Johnson said...

Thanks for visiting our blog here in Texas. I've been told some editors will reject a novel with the first paragraph, but the first chapter should give the agent or editor some idea of the author's abilities.
I'm putting those questions above my computer to constantly remind me of what I need to do.

Julie Compton said...

Thanks everyone. I'm glad you found it helpful. I wish I'd used this type of list when I wrote my first book! I'd go back and change some things if I could. �� Ruby, thanks for inviting me to the blog!

C. A. Szarek said...

Thanx so much for the awesome information! It really helps!

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