FIRST CHAPTER MISTAKES
What follows are some insights I’ve collected, after providing feedback on hundreds of first drafts. I’ve tried to only share general examples that I notice frequently in the majority of inexperienced manuscripts. There is nothing implicitly or inherently wrong with any of these: they are simple, common mistakes, made by authors who haven’t learned through experience or education that there’s a better way to present or communicate relevant information.
And we’ll talk about how to fix some of these issues later, during the revision stages. I’m only sharing them here so that, as you’re beginning to write your first rough draft, you notice them when they appear. These are the things that will make an agent, or a reader, put your book down and give up on your story.
1. Purple prose, big words. I talked earlier about the difference between literary and commercial fiction; purple prose or fancy writing often indicates a vocabulary searching for a story (or hiding the lack of one).
2. Incidental notes to readers to fill in backstory. She opened the door and screamed (story). Her neighbor, Bill Voss, who once saw her skinny dipping over the fence and was fired from his job three weeks ago (distracting infodump) dropped his microwaved dinner of peas and meatloaf and ran over to help (story.)
Bill noticed the broken window and the bloody footprints on the floor and immediately called the police. Dan Andrews, the police chief, showed up 5 minutes later in his cruiser with flashing lights (story). Bill and Dan had been friends since playing on the high school football team together, and although they went to different colleges, both had moved back to the small town and met up frequently for poker games and BBQ’s (distracting infodump
Craig Smith stopped downstairs for a ham and cheese croissant at the local coffee shop, tossing a $5 bill into the tip jar, like he did every morning (story). The owner, Cynthia Megden, had saved his ass once when the family dog died. He was at a work conference and his wife Doris was at Pilates, which left their two daughters alone with a dead Chihuahua. Cynthia heard the screams, brought them downstairs for hot chocolate, and even buried the animal in the backyard (distracting infodump). A $12 cup of coffee seemed like the least he could do. He grabbed the steaming cup of caffeinated elixir, the Styrofoam cup warming his leather gloves, and walk out into the rain (story).
Done well, this can be a nice quick way to introduce relationships or characters (although it’s still telling, not showing – but more on that later.) However if it happens almost every paragraph, then your story is like a broken projector that keeps blacking out – you can’t relax and get into the drama of the scene because you keep getting pulled away.
This leads to scene fatigue or overwhelm; where you’re being presented with a collection of mental pictures. Ask yourself, are you developing one, great picture slowly and adding in emotion? Or are you showing them a slide deck and expecting them to cram like they’re studying for a test tomorrow?
3. Too much description. She’s walking slowly over the mountain peaks, her teal dress fluttering behind her in the wind, sparks of ember and ash hissing through the air like falling stars, the glowing emblems on her wrists sparkling against the snowy landscape. Description is really important, but it has to support, not distract.
And you can describe the whole scene really quickly, like I’ve done above in one sentence. But in the beginning, people want to know what is happening and why it matters. They don’t care what color her dress or eyes or hair is. Ideally, description should be used when the character is noticing things; and they will only notice things the first time they see them (not familiar items or locations), and only when they are relaxed (not seeking immediate survival). You want to describe the things your characters notice and pay attention to; but they won’t notice anything that doesn’t interest them. The easy way to introduce a romantic interest is to suddenly be obsessed with each little detail; but romantic interests, in the beginning, are usually dismissed at first: “sure he was handsome, in a conventional sense, but that didn’t excuse his behavior.” Later, when the protagonist begins to actually think about him in a romantic way or you’re building romantic tension, that’s when she’ll notice how long his eyelashes are or the spots of yellow in his crystal blue eyes, like gold flakes in a mountain stream.
4. Confusing timeline. Something happened last week, a month ago, ten years ago. Does it matter right now? Do you need to mention that thing? Readers are struggling to connect with your now, with what’s happening to your characters in this present scene. If the character is sitting around thinking of something that happened earlier, or notices something that is different from earlier – it has a good chance of throwing readers out of your story because they have to stop and ask, wait is this happening now?
5. The first chapter is like an earthquake. Readers are looking for solid ground so they can read comfortably. Everything that makes them lose track, get confused, have to read backwards or skip forwards, anything takes the out of the story or forces them to stumble is a red flag, and it’s dangerous. Three strikes and in many cases you’re already out. Nobody will read the rest of your book, because you made the barrier to entry too high. (This is not because readers are lazy, it’s because – like agents – they’ve learned to recognize signs of weak writing quickly so they don’t waste time reading more when there are better books out there).
6. Multiple Adjectives. 1 or 2, tops. 3 or 4 and you’re showing off. Her luscious, mermaid green, flowing hair cascaded over her bare, supple shoulders, as she reached out her sparkling, pink, glossy fingernails towards her fizzling drink. Side note: adjectives are not real descriptions, but we’ll get to that later.
7. Navel-gazing characters. Janice looked out at the backyard, noticing the overgrown grass, remembering the day they’d had a picnic on the fresh cut grass, before her husband died, and he was still around to mow the lawn. (Actually, this isn’t terrible writing, or a bad start or character introduction.) The problem is, in the first chapter, we don’t know who Janice is or care enough about her to feel sympathy. We are waiting to see what happens. What’s going on now. Why is the author telling this story.
Imagine it’s a coworker telling you a story on a ten-minute lunch break. You’d want them to skip the details and get to the point. The first chapter should have very little histroy and a lot of action. Have things happen. Don’t start with sitting on a couch, eating breakfast, waking up. Start just before their life implodes. Yes, you need to create sympathy and introduce the characters first, and your historical vignettes may reveal personal information, but need to happen much later.
Show the character through reaction with plot events; you’ll want them to be likeable, so on the surface they probably seem cool – someone you’d want to be friends with, based on one meeting. They probably seem confident and aloof, but also kind and honest and just. They have principles that they stand up for, which makes them stand out. (Your heroes can start with a heroic temperament; or, even if they aren’t yet strong enough to stand up and take action, you can show them wishing they were strong enough to stand up to bullies. Noticing the bad actions of others can be a type of heroism, or at least a symptom of heroic tendencies.
However, someone’s wishes or thoughts or reflections aren’t what makes someone heroic, it’s their actions: don’t assume readers will like your characters just because of what they’ve been through, or what they’re thinking. Start with action, good behavior, and introductory episode that forces your protagonist into something that reveals their hidden strengths and moral compass.
Save the personal reveals for when characters are feeling vulnerable, when it makes sense to the story. After readers already like them and care about what happens (pity and fear), then you can make them fall in love with your characters through a deeper historical episode or backstory. Otherwise, you’re trying to make readers fall in love with complete strangers in chapter one: that’s too big an ask. Treat it like a first date, keep it light and feature their best qualities.
8. Needlessly clever metaphors, that you make you think about and picture something that’s completely irrelevant to the scene (side tip: metaphors are useful to put pictures in people’s heads and make them feel things even when you don’t have things in your book – check out the section, how to lie to readers).
9. Too many people (and each one with a full-on description about her appearance and backstory). Don’t introduce your reader to a dozen people, what they’re wearing, and how they all know each other and expect readers to remember or care about any of it.
Tim sat next to Bob, who was larger and heavyset. Tim noticed the way the sweat pooled in the skin-flabs around his nipples and waist, staining his white T-shirt. His dark hair was well past a trim, but he didn’t believe in living up to society’s ideals of masculine grooming.
This is OK description, for one character, but what if there were several? Does it matter that Bob doesn’t believe in living up to society’s ideals? Will it affect or impact the plot? Is it revealing that Tim knows this about Bob – or is he guessing? How does Tim’s revulsion to Bob change the mood of this scene?
Generally, description is described to show interest. When someone is attracted or repulsed, they start noticing things. Having a character suddenly get very interested in very small descriptive details – the way the outer rim of his green eyes were fiery yellow, like veins of gold – is a great way to show romantic interest way later in the book. But it can also be used to show whatever is important. And if too many things are important (described in great detail), then nothing is important, and readers will begin tuning you out or skipping over your descriptive passages because they know it doesn’t matter.
10. Needless detail. Specificity and jargon can show expertise – unless you focus way too much on tiny details that don’t matter. I see this a lot in military thrillers, and fine, your audience might want to know every spring involved as the hero slowly assembles his CMMG Resolute 300 Mk4 Semi-Automatic with a medium-tapered 4140CM steel barrel and a salt-and-nitride-finished barrel and SV muzzle brake and a full-length picatinny rail that he bought on ebay for $297.
But probably, this is going to feel like getting hit in the head by that rifle repeatedly. Don’t show off that you know how to Google for “research.”
11. Swearing. In certain genres, cursing is fine. If you want to use it, go for it. Some readers will hate it, some will love it. I’m pro-swearing, and my books with curse words outsell those without. But if you use too many, before readers care about the characters or what’s happening, you might be losing half your readers with absolutely non-essential elements. Plus, too much gratuitous swearing early on will make it harder to use curse words with impact later. Occasional swearing is probably fine, but a dozen per page will be distracting even for hardened pirates.
12. Backstory. Backstory, how much is too much? You’re allowed on sentence, less if possible. 3 facts maximum. Obviously these rules are flexible guidelines, what you don’t want is 3 paragraphs of exposition on backstory in between one sentence that moves the plot forward into the action again. Rule of thumb: Stay in the room! Wherever you are, whenver ever you are, stay there as much as possible! Stay with what’s happening. You’ll be tempted to explain to readers who these people are, why this scene matters, and the underlying tensions between them because of what happened at the office party last Christmas, but DON’T (unless you can do it in under a sentence, then maybe. No wait, just don’t.) Do they KNOW this information? Are they thinking about it right now; is it crtical and relevant to the actual thing that’s happening – do they have time to think about old stuff rather than reacting to stuff right now? If they know the info already…. Who are they telling; or are they thinking out loud because they’re aware they are being observed by readers, in which case they are performing. They are not authenticly experiencing the plot events; they are simulating how they should be reacting to plot events, but stopping every few sentences to tell you about it also. What is happening in this section? Anything, or is it the characters talking about stuff out loud for the benefit of the reader?
Here’s a good rule of thumb: make them ask the question, before you give them the answer. Make them want to know what happened between x and y ten years ago. Make them wonder what used to be in that missing bookshelf space without dust; or the what’s behind that locked door, or how that guy got the scar across his face. Because right now, they don’t care. If it’s important to your story (= it has emotional relevance to your characters and may influence their actions or reactions) don’t SHOW it, HIDE it – show it’s absence. Have the question raised but refuse to answer. The more important the information, the less easy it should be for readers to access it. Also, if they have time to sit around and make small talk about trivial events that didn’t have an emotional impact on them, it means your plot is too slow or stakes are too low, because your characters SHOULD need or want something much more pressing than getting to know each other or navel-gazing or reviewing things that happened earlier.
13. All big action. BOOM BOOM ZAP POW!!! Who are these people, why is this violence and blood and gore necessary? Why do I care about these dead people? No emotional depth because no character depth. Action can be meaningful later, when there’s real danger. Did any of this actually matter to the main story – or this the routine, ordinary world we can expect (this much violence we DON’T care about now, we probably aren’t going to get excited about actual, real violence later). Needs to be slowed way down if it’s real story, or sped way up if it’s backstory. (Violence is not conflict. The first chapter needs to make the protagonist and provide real conflict. What do you mean, I killed a half dozen guys! They didn’t matter emotionally; the protagonist wasn’t nervous about his own safety; he didn’t feel threatened – so these deaths are incidental. They don’t matter, they don’t mean anything. They can show that our protagonist is a heartless killer, fine – but that probably won’t make him sympathetic, or that the villains are cruel and viscious (but that doesn’t make them scary, if the protaginst is not at risk).
14. Real story vs. backstory. It’s a snapshot/poloraid, or a movie camera. You have both. Backstories are snapshots of that sunny day at the beach when Eddie nearly drowned. Real story are slow pans across the room and a fly buzzing in the window and the stench of cleaning supplies and the severed hand in the sink. Backstory is concluded action that has not teeth; there’s no real danger, so there’s no real suspense or intrigue. The results are known. Real story is unresolved conflict; the resolution hasn’t happened yet; the danger is real.
Add more conflict /suspense earlier (show the stakes or danger inherent in the world) and much less backstory exposition (those things need to come out after raising questions, in the right place, when relevant… it’s a tough balance but always shoot for MORE actual story/plot (unresolved action) than backstory (resolve action).
15. All the answers: intrigue and suspense are caused by unresolved answers about unresolved conflict. You need to show the conflict and consequences to show that the protagonist may face real consequences.
16. Painful trauma, emotion, heartbreak… we don’t care that much because we don’t know who the people are or what’s happening. Is she choosing this? Forced to comply? Resisting? Is it a surprise or something she expected? This can work well for a prologue, that skips forward; or for a late-book scene (dark night of the soul) not really for a first chapter. You may think you’re painting an emotional scene wrought with passion and pathos and gnashing teeth and agony… but you’re probably throwing a little emo-tantrum. Characters will always seem like drama queens if you overdo their emotional reactions. The problem is to fully appreciate, understand and feel the character’s pain, we need to know why this matters so much and is so traumatic. We can’t empathize if we don’t have the details; and you don’t want to give all the details in chapter one. So this scenes will probably fall flat.
17. On that note… Don’t use any exclamation points in chapter one. Seriously. They’re almost never warranted. Definitely no more than 5, max. And if you ever have a double “Shoot!!” or confused shriek “What the hell?!” those probably need to go, too.
18. When something happens, stop writing. I know I said this already, but this one thing will immediately transform your writing. Something big happens, changes, something new and surprising and shocking. FULL STOP. TURN THE PAGE. Give readers a moment to process with a scene or chapter break, right when the thing happens. Don’t continue or show the reaction in the next sentence.
19. Not describing the scene: (This comes a bit late, we should get the scene/setting early so we can picture what’s happening) Not in huge detail, but just the basics. Spotlight a couple things that portray your unique world or setting, and the genre (imagine you’re walking into a lecture, but a little uncertain if you’re in the right room, but it keeps going and going without actually telling you what the topic is, he’s in the middle of some anecdote and you’re waiting for him to confirm or deny that you’re in the right place so you can either pay attention or leave quickly) I’d like to see a little more setting description so it’s not just a generic landscape (when, where…)
So far all the conflict is implied, none of it is happening – I would let the action/conflict happen and show the consequences first; then explain things after wards as the characters react.
20. Have the thing HAPPEN first. Don’t explain the thing that’s going to happen before/as the thing is happening. BOOM! A bomb went off. It reminded me of the time I was in Afghanistan fighting poppy farmers, and the time my 3rd wife slammed the door, after locking me out of my own house. I met her at a Baseball game; all her family loved baseball. It’s one of the things that drew us together. After getting out of the army, I was haunted by so many ghosts and PTSD, you’d think the crack of a bat hitting a homerun would trigger an anxiety attack, but somehow I found the excitement comforting, without the risk of schrapnel in your skull. So anyway, about that bomb…
How to know if it’s backstory/telling: who is giving all this information right now? Why are they giving all this information right now. Is it stuff they already know? Are they just thinking through it all anyway… reminding themselves (fine if they are debating an interior decision = conflict). Not fine if they’re just talking out loud so readers know the details. Time yourself reading those paragraphs out loud where nothing is happening. Imagine your characters standing still and waiting for this little soliloquy to wrap up so they can get back to what they were doing? How often do you make them sit around and wait? What is actually happening? Don’t let your characters sit and wait for readers to catch up to the story.
21. Nothing is happening. Lots of backstory, off screen, memories, thinking through stuff, why it all matters, reacting to an almost event, but actually… nothing is happening. Characters need to be faced with things that demand a response, but probably not things that demand their entire history to properly understand the central conflict or pathos. Not in the first chapter.
22. POV jumping. POV jumping. Very hard to pull of well, switching “I” voice between different heads/characters. Hard to see who is speaking. Also, easy to have different character responding to the same events, so the plot isn’t really moving forward, it’s repeating the same information 2x, not new or surprising. Readers should learn things as characters learn things, at the same time.
This is telling, not showing – lessening the conflict by referring to exernal events, “normally, usually, etc”. Gerald burst into flame, unable to control his powers. He was usually even-tempered, even cordial on my usual visits to his underground troll bank of illicit alien contraband. But the new batch of augmented security robots were scanning the neighborhood and he was clearly on edge. (New rule… most of these things should be avoided because they’re done poorly. IF you do them, they must also introduce new information)
23. Descriptions for each character. I scattered my father’s ashes over the canyon and turned back towards the car. My wife Linda was waiting. At 5.7 she’s just a few inches shorter than I am, with wafting blonde hair that contrasts with her black blazer and pearls. I climb into the red convertible and she pats me on the shoulder. I glance into the rear view mirror as Lance tosses me a bag of Cheetos. “May he rest in cheeses,” he says. “Are you high? That joke’s worse than usual.” Lance leans forward, pushing his dark bangs off his unshaven face, revealing the clear blue eyes and dark lashes that are too pretty for his unkempt form and the jagged tattoos that run up and down his chiseled forearms.
Character description needs to be done with new information that points to personality; more than just physical markers; and connected with an action or interaction, not just your POV character checking him out and commenting about his appearance for no reason.
24. We won’t feel sympathy if we don’t have details; so no vague posting, that doesn’t increase intrigue if you tell us what happened but skip the details. You need to show the pain without telling us why it matters, until we want to know – then hold it out, lean into the uncertainty, hook and switch. Dangle answers out of reach.
25. Bad dialogue (what is bad dialogue?) language that nobody would ever say. Cliched lines. Exclamations or noises. Obviously unrealistic people (real people don’t talk out loud about things that they know, or share their feelings easily, or use full names and details for each other). Keep it short and simple; conflict is in subtext and nuance. People rarely exchange information or say what they mean.
Bonus: I mentioned earlier, you can use italics to show thought; but beware interrupting the narrative every few sentences to have the character react mentally and “think” things to themselves or mutter to themselves. A good thought is probably half a sentence, a fragment that reveals mood, character, emotion or new information. If you have a sort of mental running dialogue of commentary throughout especially the first chapter, it really slows things up and can seem melodramatic. It can also be confusing if you’re jumping from 1st person thoughts to 3rd person narrative.
This is especially true if the character is musing on current event of their world to share/show/introduce world-building concepts for the first time; or if they are casually laughing at themselves for being silly: high level, reflexive self-awareness paired with jovial easy-go-lucky attitude makes it hard for anything to seem important or serious. You an have light and fun scenes or playful banter with friends, but remember, conflict is the most important thing, and the conflict should be big enough that they don’t easily blow it off, forget or accept que sera sera (oh well, whatever, nothing I can do about it).