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!