Common First Chapter Mistakes

Hello, loves. Between PitchWars, DVPit, and general mentoring/CPing I’ve read A LOT of opening pages. Here are some of the common errors I’ve noticed along the way that may help you as you draft and revise.

  1. Starting in the wrong place (*Lost stork from Dumbo gif*)

The inciting incident opens a story. It’s the event that sets everything in motion. In YA it’s preferable to be in the first chapter or two. There’s more flexibility in adult, but in romance it’s introducing the hero. In mystery it’s a body. In suspense it’s the danger, etc. The closer those are to chapter one, the better.

  1. Starting with too much action (*LL Cool J surprise Motherf*ckers gif*)

Ex: An MC is running around, things blur by, pulses race, but the reader has no idea who the character is, where they’re going, what they’re running from, or where we are. Back up and slow down a little. Go to the spot that makes them run.

  1. Starting with too little action (*Nothing is happening, Little Mermaid gif*)

Ex: An opening begins with internal thoughts by the main character about her life, the day passes, and then the chapter ends. The reader is probably moving on to a different book. I read somewhere that if your book was a movie, the camera should have to pan on the first page. This stuck with me and I think it’s great advice. You want forward motion of some sort to get to the inciting incident.

  1. Starting without an anchor (*Dog in a space shuttle gif*)

Ex: A story opens with whispers in a room. Cool. But if we don’t know if it’s a spaceship or the 1700s very quickly, that’s bad. Make sure the reader is grounded to the scene. What time period are we in? Who is the MC? A reader should be able to tell your category and genre by reading your first couple of pages.

  1. Starting with a cliché. (*It was a dark and stormy night gif*)

Ex: A dream. An MC waking up. An MC getting ready for school/getting dressed. An MC looks in the mirror and describes her eyes, hair, nose, moles. An MC is in a car, driving somewhere and musing about life. An action event that turns out to be a movie or TV show. A description of the sky as azure as an opening line. These have all become overused in literature and are often weak places to begin. Give agents/editors something new.

  1. Starting with an information dump (*Pile of dino poop, Jurassic Park gif*)

Ex: Everything you need to know about the world, the deities, who governs, the sewage system, the resistance, the pollination of crops, their food and metal sources, and there’s a chosen one, all in the first ten pages. First chapters are a need-to-know basis. Provide enough information so the reader isn’t lost, but nothing they’ll trip over. This is hardest to balance in sci-fi and fantasy because you have world-building. My suggestion: read A LOT of chapter ones of published books in your genre- samples on Kindle are free. It’ll help you figure out how to get the info across without dumping a history book on your reader.

  1. Starting with a non-POV character (*And you are, Olaf gif*)

Ex: Nancy finds the body. We never hear from Nancy again but she’s used for this discovery. Try to start somewhere else.

Bonus: remember first lines drive stories. Make sure yours is a good one.

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