How to Screw up Your First Chapter

The first five pages determine whether anyone will read the following three hundred. Truth is, you’re probably screwing it up.

I know I do. Frequently.

Intro

I worked as a screenplay reader for a while. I had to go through stacks of manuscripts, grading them for a production company. It sounds fun, doesn’t it?

It was incredibly painful at times.

After two months, I could determine the quality of a script before the end of the first page with terrifying accuracy.

Did I mention that I had to read each script to very last page even if I knew it was an abomination to all that is good and decent in the world?

Screenplays and novels aren’t all that different, really. Sure they have a different format, and in a screenplay you don’t have the luxury of hearing a character’s thoughts – you rely on action and dialogue. Show rather than tell. Timing and structure can be different too.

But story is story. I’d like to divulge some things I’ve learned.

If you do these things you will screw up your first chapter and immediately lose me as a reader:

 

Start with action.

If your character is bathing in gallons of adrenaline, on the verge of death within the first few pages, I toss it. I don’t give a shit if he/she dies.

Action SceneDo I sound heartless?

Starting a book with action is like saying, “I love you” on the first date. Premature. The purpose of the first page is to make me care. Give me feelings for your character. I want to feel love, hate, intrigue, elation, depression, or horror.

Rob me of that and I’m gone.

Starting with action is revealing to the reader that you don’t have the ability to hook them emotionally. You’re showing that the only way you know how to hook the reader is through danger.

I need to care before I’m willing to go on an adventure with your character. Don’t make me travel with an utter stranger.

Once I care about your character, then I am terrified if they’re on the verge of death. If you lead with a life threatening situation, it shows me that you don’t know how to build personal connection, and I wonder if I’m ever going to get it in the rest of the story if you don’t do it at the beginning, which is the most vital point.

 

Start with mundane.Boring

Don’t show me a boring day in the life. Morning alarm, work, blah blah blah… If you start with a day in the life, then there’d better be something interesting about that day.

Don’t bore your audience before the inciting incident. Many authors follow the rule: show the “normal” for your story, then through the inciting incident, we can see a change in the character, and at the end of the story it goes back to the new normal.

I get that. I’m not contradicting it.

All I’m saying is please don’t bore me to death with normalcy before anything gets interesting. I’m on Twitter. I’m a little ADD, as is 80% of Americans. Do you really expect me to sit through fifteen pages of boring day-in-the-life before thinking to myself, “Maybe there is a better book out there in the world I should be reading.”

Hook me.

 

Start with cliché.

Don’t start with physical description, weather, or dialogue. Literary agents are renown for dismissing a manuscript for any of these reasons alone.

Never let your character to gaze into the mirror. This is a great excuse to describe their physical attributes (or to be introspective/wonder where their lost innocence has gone). It’s been done in every single book and movie ever.

Avoid common phrases like: “dilapidated house,” “ramrod straight,” and “drop dead gorgeous.” Come up with something new. Common phrases lose their impact.

You know that, right? Then look through your writing and see if you act that way.


Question of the day: What are your pet peeves about how novels start?

13 Comments

  1. Hi. I found all of this really interesting and helpful, especially the part about not starting with action. I’ll definitely keep these in mind as I move forward in writing stories.

    My personal pet peeve about the beginning of a novel is beginning with extensive description. If I’m not hooked in the first paragraph, which doesn’t happen with description, I probably won’t read much further.

    Great stuff. I’ll be checking your blog often.

  2. bdschmitt

    May 11, 2015 at 11:57 am

    Hi, Tom! Thanks for reading, and I’m glad you found it helpful! If you want to read my future posts, on the top right side of my site there’s an option to have each post delivered to your inbox so you don’t miss anything! =)

    That’s one of my pet peeves as well, and unfortunately a fairly common way to begin a book.

  3. Ohhhh, as a book buyer I get many novels to consider, and I give ’em one paragraph. That’s it! I know, it’s heartless, but if the writing doesn’t grab me from the get-go, I give it the heave-ho. So, bad writing is my number one pet peeve. A terrific writer can grab me with one of those boring “the alarm goes off and I get up” kinds of openings, although I agree with you, that’s another one of my pet peeves.

  4. bdschmitt

    May 11, 2015 at 2:19 pm

    How many books do you pass over per day on average? (I don’t blame you for the one paragraph rule)

  5. Hello! Cliche is my main pet peeve. Blow me out of the water in the first five pages. If I get to that point where I can predict where you’re going to go with the story then my patience is hard pressed unless…the writer has given it a nice twist. The classic novel that comes to my mind is Salem’s Lot: Stephen King’s opening line was magnificent: “Almost everyone thought the man and the boy were father and son”. This was intriguing to me: did the man kidnap the boy? Then in the next paragraph where we traveling southwest in an old Citroen sedan…what the heck is a Citroen?? What are they running from?
    To me, that was a great set up. I can a lot more examples both positive and negative.
    Thanks for the opportunity to read what you posted, there are great points there!

    Chris.

    • bdschmitt

      May 11, 2015 at 9:43 pm

      Love the example, Chris! That is a really great opening! One of my favorites is from C.S. Lewis: “Once there was a boy named Eustice, and he almost deserved it.”

      Thanks for reading!

  6. Absolutely everything you said is spot on. Cliche’s annoy the hell out of me – ‘deep blue eyes stared back at me beneath tendrils of my wavy brown hair’ and – yup, I couldn’t give a crap if the character is facing death in the first paragraph because I don’t know them well enough to care. It’s the same when I read pitches – rhetorical questions in them result in a face palm from me, because I don’t care if they can ‘come out alive’ or ‘beat the clock’ or even ‘have their heartbroken’ because I don’t yet sympathize with them. Gah! It drives me nuts. Love books that start with ‘Once upon a time, it was a dark and stormy night in a land far, far away’. KILL ME NOW. 😀 Great post!

    • bdschmitt

      May 12, 2015 at 1:30 pm

      Haha, I’m glad we share some common pet peeves. How do you tend to start your stories? I usually try to go for narration with personality like the famous, “Mother died today. Or was it yesterday; I can’t be sure.” Ugh. So GOOD!

  7. My latest one begins something like, “The text notification from my cellphone cut into my thoughts with the sharpness of a razors edge.” It’s bk 2, and I start 2 months from the end of the first one. I think the first one starts, “As I stood atop a tree covered mountain deep in the Appalachian forest, my thoughts strayed to the night of my death.” or something like that!

  8. Ha! It looks like I start in her head. I definitely tend to start in the characters head.

    • bdschmitt

      May 12, 2015 at 2:00 pm

      I’m particularly fond of “my thoughts strayed to the night of my death” that’s great! I usually write in 3rd person, so that is already different enough.

  9. This made me laugh. I quite enjoy your writing style. As a novelist, I always used to think my biggest issue was starting stories, but after reading this, maybe I’m not so bad. I agree with all of the above. I’ve read many stories that have started in each of those ways. There are always the exceptions to the rule, of course, but I tend to lose interest if they start in any of those three ways.

    I love stories with a great first line. Something that draws you in right away, that already makes you put the book down with a long sigh. In a book I’m reading right now (The Time Between- Tara French) the first line is this:

    The first time I died was the summer I turned seventeen.

    Right off the bat, I’m hooked. Maybe that’s just my personal preference. My novel starts in a similar way, in a way intended to draw the reader right into the heart of the main character. That first line starts like this:

    The day Theo Carter buried his sister, surrounded by a hundred other people, was so brilliantly perfect it instantly made him angry.

    I’ll have to leave it up to readers to determine if that’s interesting enough, but it doesn’t start with an alarm, or in the middle of a life or death action sequence, so I have that going for me. It’s intimidating and scary though, trying to create the perfect chapter that will draw people in. I already know the story I want to tell, and why you’d want to read to the end. Showing that in the first sentence or two, it’s a lot of pressure!

    Keep up with the blog. You write well. 🙂

    • bdschmitt

      May 21, 2015 at 10:23 pm

      Thank you for your kind words. =)

      I recently said to hell with trying to create a first sentence that changes literature as we know it. Now I try to start with an evocative image. That image drives the first paragraph, which in turn drives the first page, first chapter… etc… As long as the image is strong, the chapter should be strong.

      Putting so much stock in the first sentence leaves me staring at the blinking cursor in a loud brain fart.

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