One of the most important things for an author to understand is how to form the first chapter. Or, more importantly, how not to. The first chapter is what the agents and publishers will read. It is also, most likely, the page that curious people will go to at a bookstore. So, if you have a bad beginning, everyone just assumes that you aren’t qualified to write and therefore do not deserve the attention. I have read books that have very bad beginnings, and so I didn’t continue to read them. What are the things to avoid in the first chapter? Here is a list of five things to remember.
1. Avoid long opening paragraphs
This is one of the things that bug me. A lot. If I open a book I want to instantly be drawn into the story. Sure, a small opening paragraph is fine. But don’t go along to write what I call a ‘Run-On Paragraph’ which is a paragraph that takes something you have already described and breaks it down bit by bit until I have a big picture- but maybe too big. I want to be drawn into the book first off. And if I am instantly put into a position when I have to read this poetic, run-on sentence, I’m going to assume that the rest of the book is that way and put it down.
2. Avoid using passive voice
Looking back at my books that I wrote years ago, I noticed I used passive voice. I told about things instead of showing them. That basically opened the door- but kept the screen tightly locked. I could smell the world, feel the warmth, see the light, but I couldn’t get in. We don’t want that. In the first chapter, and fundamentally the rest of the book, try showing things instead of telling them. For example, don’t say ‘the fall leaves’ instead, try doing something like this ‘the drying leaves crunched underfoot’. If you do it that way, people are sucked into the world, and they can almost see it, feel it, and smell it. It’s alright to use passive voice sometimes, but if you use it all the time agents and publishers will see you as immature, and won’t give your book another thought.
3. Avoid pointless facts
Do not go on to describe the color of her hair, where she went to school, who she dated, etc. right at the beginning. The beginning of the book needs to be like a movie- not a history book. Put in these facts one by one, dotting the book, letting the readers learn these things one by one. Don’t ever put anything like this: ‘Anne was twelve years old when she first went to Green Gables. Before that, she had been a lonely orphan in an asylum, and often talked to herself to keep herself from being all alone.’ That sounds quite immature, doesn’t it? Instead, Lucy Montgomery put in the facts one by one, telling the story, weaving it together, putting fact over fact, each of a different color.
4. Avoid answering questions
In the first chapter, I want to be left in the dark. I want to be asking questions. I want to have a good enough understanding of the world they live in, but I want to still be asking questions at the end. If you answer every question you proposed, I wouldn’t feel like I needed to read the rest of the book. I would feel satisfied. As mean as it sounds, you do not want the reader to be satisfied. You want them to fidget, wondering what’s going to happen next, hoping that they don’t have to wake up at 3 a.m. again to read what will happen next. Sorry, insomniacs, but it is the author’s goal to keep you up as late as possible. How do we do that? Keep them asking questions- and don’t answer them in the same chapter. Keep them waiting, hoping, sweating for the answer. And then, finally, when they get the answer, they are farther along in the book.
5. Avoid using an excessive amount of poetic similes
“Her smile was like a ray of sunshine shining on a freezing land.” These similes are fine, as long as they are used in moderation. But, I would advise you to eliminate them from your first chapter altogether. Because, most often, the similes are used to describe something we don’t need to know about. The reader will just skim over that description like this; she has a smile like a ray of sunshine. Yeah, I don’t care. Describe things as they are for now and then, later on in the book, you can go ahead and add similes. But, unless you are trying to write a very poetic book -which I caution you against- be careful when you use them. A good amount of similes can be beautiful- an excessive amount is immature.
Questions? Comments? Do not hesitate to make them known in the comment section below!