Identifying Problems In First Chapters

Cat-CatWearingGlasses By Ruby Johnson

If you find the ideas in this blog helpful please leave a comment or contribute your ideas.

I read a lot of books, judge contests, and in addition critique manuscripts monthly.  The self-published market has exploded in the past year or two. What I’ve learned is there are many self-published books without exciting plots, interesting characters, unique settings or great endings.What do readers want? A book that makes them want to keep reading.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. Almost every contest entry I read  has anywhere from a page to six pages that could be omitted with no injury to the story.
Here’s an example from Daryn Cross of what you want. From  her novella Frozen Assets: 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.

  • Vagueness caused by lengthy  exposition and dialogue. Establish time, a sense of place and conflict right away.
  • Lack of Action This doesn’t necessarily mean “action thriller” type action, but rather, forward movement. Action can be identified as dialogue, sex, fight scenes/violence, emotional scenes.
  • Non-stop action with no down time to get the character’s reaction. Character reaction gives the reader time to catch their breath.
  • Uninteresting, unlikeable, or inconsistent main characters who are doing things that don’t endear them to the reader, i.e. cheating, 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. A character portrayed as a goody goody christian girl who turns into a raging sexpot with foul language is inconsistent and unlikeable. Yes, that is in one novel I read.
  • Too many characters introduced at once. Do we need to know the ten family siblings all with names starting with the same letters.
  •  All senses not addressed—see, touch, smell, hear, taste. This is especially necessary in love stories. Linda Howard is a master at writing about intimacy.
  • Bad first lines. For instance, starting with a funny first line or paragraph then leading into a sad death scene. The first line is the story promise or glimpse into the soul of your story. 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. In fact, the reader may just skip over. 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.
  • Too  many distracting flashbacks. Flashbacks are not bad as long as the scenes don’t take the reader away too long from the present story. Limiting flashback to a sentence or two is better than long scenes.
  • 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.
  • Manuscripts needing an editor  Many self-published e-books are filled with grammar, spelling,  syntax errors,  and content/ structure problems that could be helped with an editor’s eye. Don’t be too anxious to get the book out without careful editing.

These are only considerations to think about.. Come back to it after you have completed a draft of your novel and see how many boxes you can check.

If you are a writer or reader, what makes a first chapter stand out for you?


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