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First Pages, First Chapters /Pt.3

How to avoid common pitfalls when writing your first chapter

As an editor, mentor, and children's novel competition judge, I read a lot of first chapters, and many share similar issues which keep them from fully engaging the reader.

Part 3: Hard graft, good craft

Make your words WORK!

In part 1 we looked at how hard first pages need to work, with a few ideas on how to make that happen. Let's take a closer look at those tips:

Write the first chapter last

Sometimes, the first chapter can feel more like 'writing your way into' the story than anything resembling your best work. Perhaps you don't know your characters very well yet, or you're not sure what the inciting incident is going to look like. Perhaps you've got a very detailed plan but just can't find the right place in the journey to begin. You start writing but it lacks that 'Tada!'

In which case, you might be best off skipping chapter one (or more) and start writing the inciting incident, or even plot point one (think 'Call to adventure' or Beat 4, the catalyst, if you're using Save the Cat). Once you've finished the manuscript, you can return to write chapter one, with a greater understanding of the plot, the character, and the story arc. You might even find that you no longer need a 'chapter one' and that, in fact, the book is just right as it is!

One common improvement point that new writers see is: "The story didn't start in the right place"

and it might be that you'd benefit from cutting your first chapter(s) altogether.

Write in a Flash

With flash fiction, "instead of focusing on plot or character development, the writer instead focuses on the narrative’s movement. Every sentence, every word, should reveal something to the reader that we did not know before. It should also hint at a larger backstory than what’s revealed on the page." ~Writers Digest

Practicing the art of succinct writing can improve your longstyle craft, especially in your opening chapters, where you're looking for your words to work hard - as above: revealing something about the character, plot, tone, genre, theme, or goal.

Hook your reader

Read books with brilliant openings - think of a book you couldn't put down from the first page and ask yourself what was it about that opening that gripped you? Usually, it's a question - why is something happening? What is happening? What is about to happen? This advice comes with a warning label attached though! Don't baffle your reader. There's a fine line between intrigue and confusion. Here are a few of my favourite opening lines, and each one kept me hooked to the end:

A dead bolt has a very specific sound.

This is the story of how I became my sister.

The men lock Roxy in the cupboard when they do it.

It was a dark, blustery afternoon in spring, and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried out bed of the old North Sea.

Take a look at your opening paragraph and ask yourself if your WIP might benefit from a stronger initial hook.

In the next blog in the series, I'll be delving deeper into my final point from part 2: Don't try to fit everything in. Until then...

Happy writing!


Join me next time for more first-page chat, and if you'd like free feedback on YOUR first page, click below and say hello

From EmDashED Freelance Novel Editing


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