Do You Make These Mistakes in Your First Chapter?

Do you make these Ch. 1 mistakes

That opening chapter: you know it’s all-important, right? You only have a few pages–maybe a few paragraphs–to set the scene, introduce your main character, establish enough of a story world that readers aren’t hopelessly confused, and (let’s not forget!) snag the reader’s attention.

These mistakes can sabotage your best efforts, so readers won’t give your book a chance.* Read on to see if you’re making any of them!

1. Your story starts too slowly.

Starting your book too slowly can be a fatal error. Not that you should necessarily begin with an action scene (and, IMO, starting off with a scene from the climax is cheating, even if Stephanie Meyer does do it in Twilight), but start off with something interesting.

Like dialog or your main character’s thoughts or a surprising observation. Yes, action is okay, too.

Avoid pages of description. Avoid dumping backstory. Sure, the reader will need to know that your main character’s cat died when she was only five and this stressful event has shaped her attitude toward cats and men in hats ever since–but do they really need to know on page one? If not, save if for when after we care about said character.

Also resist the urge to explain everything. It’s okay if the reader isn’t 100% sure what’s happening or why. As long as you include enough information to ground the reader–hook the reader–in your unique voice, character, and story world, she’ll wait to learn more.

2. Your story opening is cliched.

Even if you’re the best writer in the world, certain story openings have been so overused that they’ll automatically apply the brakes to the narrative. Not what you’re looking for in an opening.

What are these cliched beginnings? I’m so glad you asked! Here are a few to watch out for:

  • Waking up
  • First day of school
  • Last day of school/first day of summer vacation
  • Looking into the mirror (especially as a way to segue into character description)
  • Protagonist is moving back to her hometown just after a divorce or breakup

Note that the meaning of “cliched beginning” varies somewhat from genre to genre. If you write children’s literature, you probably don’t need to worry about the divorce/moving back to hometown example. If you write romance, you probably don’t need to check for “first day of school” openings.

Be aware of commonly used tropes in your genre–and then make sure you don’t unconsciously use too many of them.

3. Your story opening is confusing.

Maybe you don’t have any trouble with starting your book too slowly. Maybe you’ve got lots going on in those opening pages–action, dialog, world building, the whole shebang!

(Yes, I just used SHEBANG in a blog post. And not even on a dare :D)

If that describes you, make sure you don’t swing too far in the opposite direction. Too much going on in the opening pages can easily lead to a crowd of very confused readers, and confused readers tend to close books. Not what you’re looking for.

Here are some common confusion-generators in chapter 1:

  • Too many characters: Try to limit your opening scene to 2 or 3 characters, unless some of those characters are nameless “extras”. Otherwise your reader will have a hard time keeping track of who’s who.
  • Too few dialog tags: If you include dialog here, make sure that you’re slightly more generous than usual with the dialog tags. I’m not talking about using “she drawled” and “he growled” in place of good old “he said”/”she said”. “Said” is just fine, thank you, as it won’t distract the reader from the story. However, make sure that most lines of dialog have something to identify the speaker, whether that’s the character’s name or an action tag (eg, “Carla bit her lip”) or a bit of description.
  • Failure to ground the reader in a specific place, setting, and/or time: I know, in #1 I told you not to include too much description or explanation about the story’s setting. At the same time, though, it’s important to give your reader just enough information that he can create a sort of mental “placeholder image.” Look for those telling details–details that convey multiple pieces of information about a scene. For instance, mentioning a horseless carriage firmly places your story in the late 1800’s or early 1900’s as well as giving the reader a visual cue.
  • Assuming the reader knows more than they do: This is probably the easiest mistake to make–and the most difficult one to find for yourself. The problem is that, as the author, you know all those details about character motivations and backstory and essential plot details. If you happen to miss mentioning one of these essential details in the opening pages of your book, your subconscious is likely to fill in the necessary information without you noticing. The best fix for this problem? Make sure you have a critique partner or beta reader! A fresh set of eyes can take note of places where he or she is confused.

*Some of you are probably coming up with examples of bestsellers that make one or more of these mistakes. Yep, they’re out there–books that start with lengthy passages of description or backstory or such a confusing stretch of dialog that it leaves the reader’s head spinning in circles. Of course, those books are usually successful in spite of the “mistakes” in their openings. Or because the authors are so amazing that they can turn a “mistake” inside out so it works. If you’re not a best-selling author, though, I’d try to avoid these page-stoppers!

Your turn: What writing hiccups make you stop reading in those opening pages? What cliches do you see getting overused in your genre? Please share in the comments!

How to Create a Checklist for Quick & Easy Self-Editing

If you’re a frequent traveler, you probably have a packing checklist–a master list of clothing, toiletries, computer equipment, electronics, etc, that you need to remember to pack. A packing list prevents mistakes by helping you remember all those miscellaneous items you need to collect every time you head out of town. A packing list also saves you time because you don’t have to start from scratch every time you pack.

As a writer, an editing checklist serves essentially the same function.

  • It helps you track those easy-to-miss details so you don’t make errors of omission.
  • It’s a cumulative document, taking advantage of your experience over the long haul.
  • It helps you to break down a potentially overwhelming task (editing a manuscript) into a series of manageable steps.

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In other words, an editing checklist helps you complete your work more effectively, in less time, via a defined process.

It marks you as a professional!

Step 1: Define Your “Buckets”

So what goes on your editing checklist?

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3 Essentials of Effective Character Descriptions

footprint-71137_1280Imagine this scenario: You’re working on that all-important first chapter. You have all your resource files open on your computer, or perhaps printed out and spread on the table beside you: timelines, plot points, character notes, setting details.

You pen the opening paragraphs, setting the scene while avoiding too much description. You add a dash of dialog, a little action. Your main character is on the scene and you know exactly what she looks like, because you’ve written pages of description. You might’ve even written up a nifty character interview. Heck, you know everything from her favorite nail polish color to the contents of her backpack.

It’s time to paint her picture for the reader…and you have no idea where to start.

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How to Write Cliffhanger Chapter Endings

You probably know what a cliffhanger is–a surprise or story twist that leaves the reader hanging at the chapter’s end, so they are compelled to turn to the next page. Sort of like every episode of Lost ended with one character or another in dire straits… Compelling you to queue up the next episode IMMEDIATELY.

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Photo from Adam Kubalica, Flickr Creative Commons

But how seriously should we take this whole cliffhanger concept? I mean, how many surprises and plot twists can an author pull out of her hat without going overboard?

The answer: More than you think. That’s because surprises don’t always have to be huge. Small surprises can also effectively engage your reader’s curiosity. They don’t even have to be real–you can create a cliffhanger from an event that seems alarming at the end of one chapter, only to be revealed as a non-event at the start of the next. (Avoid overusing this type of “false alarm” cliffhanger, though, or you’ll annoy your readers!)

Getting Practical

If you’re anything like me, you’re thinking, Great, but how do you DO IT? 

I need something more than “make it a cliffhanger!” when I’m trying to crank up tension at my chapter’s end. What I need is a list of possibilities, ideas to help me start brainstorming.

So I asked myself, what do my favorite authors do to ratchet up the tension at the end of a chapter? Read on for a slew of great examples from Jim Butcher’s paranormal bestseller Storm Front.

 

Something Unexpected Happens

The first, most obvious type of cliffhanger is when Something Unexpected Happens.

Cliffhangers can involve someone:

  • Someone takes an action
  • Someone reacts to something
  • Someone arrives
  • Someone leaves

For example,

Someone turned the key in the dead bolt of the apartment’s front door and swung it open.” – end of Chapter 18, Jim Butcher’s Storm Front 

Cliffhangers can involve something:

  • Something happens, on its own timeline or in response to something the character did
  • Something fails to happen
  • Something changes
  • Something fails to change

Note that “something happening” doesn’t always have to be huge.

That cliffhanging something can simply be a new piece of information:

  • The character learns something
  • The character notices something
  • The character figures something out

“That was the key… It was time to talk to Monica Sells.” – end of Chapter 19, Storm Front

  • The character decides something

I narrowed my eyes. I needed a few things from my apartment… And after that, I was going to have a serious talk with one of Chicago’s gangsters.” – end of Chapter 16, Storm Front

  • The character remembers something…or doesn’t remember something

It kept nagging at me, even as I fell asleep. What had I forgotten? And another, less sensible question – who had been on the line who hadn’t wanted to speak to Murphy? Had Monica Sells tried to call me back? Why would she call me off the case and tell me to keep the money?…” – end of Chapter 12, Storm Front

  • The character feels something

And I walked away from Murphy, whom I couldn’t talk to, and from Linda, whom I couldn’t protect, my head aching, weary to my bones, and feeling like a total piece of shit.” – end of Chapter 15, Storm Front

  • The character reacts internally to events.

“Paranoid? Probably. But just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean there isn’t an invisible demon about to eat your face.” – end of Chapter 1, Storm Front

  • The character makes an urgent demand

“Get me there five minutes ago.” The cabbie blinked at the money, shrugged, and said, “Crazies. Cabbies get all the crazies.” Then he tore out into the street, leaving a cloud of smoke behind us.” – end of Chapter 21, Storm Front

Cliffhangers Near the Climax

As a story nears its climax, it can become progressively more difficult to throw in new plot twists and turns. At some point, your character may simply be on a difficult, but pretty much linear, trek towards the climax. Although you want to avoid predictability, you also don’t want to dump in surprises just for the sake of surprises.
Every single chapter of those books had to end with a cliffhanger. It was the law. A chapter would finish with “Tash stepped off the spaceship and heard a blood-curdling scream!” Then you’d read the next chapter and it would say “But apparently it was just a bird.”
—Daniel Wallace on the Galaxy of Fear series
So how do you end a chapter on a cliffhanging note if nothing new really happens? It turns out that the best writers have a few other cliffhanger tricks up their sleeves.

Sometimes the cliffhanger is simply a statement, from your main character or another character, that reinforces scene tension:

Her words fell with the weight of conviction, simple truth. “There’s nothing anyone can do, now.”” – end of Chapter 20, Storm Front

Summing up the situation can also create a cliffhanger by reminding your reader of everything that’s gone wrong for your hero.

I still felt sick, could still see Gimpy Lawrence’s eyes as he died. I could still hear Linda Randall’s husky laughter in my head. I still regretted lying to Murphy and I still had no intentions of telling her any more than I already had. I still didn’t know who was trying to kill me. I still had no defense to present to the white counsel.

“Let’s face it, Harry,” I told myself. “You’re still screwed.”” – end of Chapter 17, Storm Front

Sometimes this includes a sentence of commentary from your hero:

I took the keys and walked up, out of the light and shelter of McAnally’s and into the storm, my bridges burning behind me.” – end of Chapter 23, Storm Front

Similarly, the chapter ending provides an opportunity to paint a picture of the dire situation that lies ahead.

And so, I walked through a spectral landscape littered with skulls, into the teeth of the coming storm, house covered in malevolent power, throbbing with savage and feral mystic strength. I walked forward to face a murderous opponent who had all the advantages and who stood prepared and willing to kill me from where he stood within the heart of his own destructive power, while I was armed with nothing more than my own skill and wit and experience.

Do I have a great job or what?” – end of Chapter 24, Storm Front

 

Cliffhangers keeps your readers reading by building story tension…when they’re done right. Have any questions or more awesome examples? Please share in the comments!