Updated: May 10, 2021
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 1: The Side-track
The Side-track is where a writer starts off well, then wanders off into narrative thought just as you're getting started. For example:
My Amazing New Book, by Emma Read
[Insert kick-ass first line here]
Reader: What an opening line! I can't wait to see what come next.
Hello main character, nice to meet you. You did what? And what just happened. Wow! That's super interesting. I think we could definitely go on a journey together. This book makes me feel like I dipped my toe in the water and something grabbed me and then ...
[Main character suddenly gets wistful and remembers the last time something like that happened and how it affected his upbringing, relationships, favourite ice-cream flavour]
Reader: Hang on. You want to tell me your entire life history? Like, right now? But what about the thing, with the whatnot? We were going somewhere. And besides, we've only just met and ... I don't actually care (mint choc chip though, if you're asking).
[But you need to know all this VERY IMPORTANT STUFF about my main character. Immediately.]
Reader: My foot is in the water and it's getting cold.
Why do writers get side-tracked like this?
Sometimes it's difficult to find the connection between your hooky first line and building a relationship with your character. It's not that it's hard to do, you just have to trust yourself.
It might be you are still writing your way into the story and in fact, this sudden swerve towards exposition is not for the character, it's for you. You're learning who they are, how they feel, how they fit. Which is great - go for it. Then on your first round of edits: cut it.
Or, maybe you're just bloomin' excited about this book! You've charged in, hit us with a killer opening and in your mind we're at the midpoint by paragraph two. Hurray for enthusiastic writing, but seriously, slow down (unless you're writing a picture book or flash fiction). Find the balance between arriving to the story as late as possible, but not missing the bus.
In my experience, the most common reason for a main character to get side-tracked in the opening page(s) is a lack of confidence in the writer, in their own craft and in the reader. Yes, first pages do need to pack a lot in, and I'll talk about that in pt.2, but they also need to stay focused, be clear and succinct, even when dealing with something quite complicated.
Here are my tips for avoiding the side-track:
If you're using a first line hook, make sure it leads fluidly into the story and isn't just a catchy 'headline'
Start your story in an active scene. Active doesn't have to mean action, but make sure something is happening
Stay with your main character, in the moment, regardless of POV. Resist the urge to explain, or flashback - there is plenty of time for this as the book progresses
A great example of segueing from first line punch into an active scene, jam-packed with character, is the first page of Charlotte's Web, by E.B. White.
It begins with the famous line:
'Where's Papa going with the axe?' said Fern ...
Boom! But keep reading - we stay with Fern, as her mother sets for breakfast. They discuss the runty pig. Fern starts yelling and runs outside to plead with her father and so the action continues. There is no side-track into Fern's internal narrative about how she fancies waffles and OJ and always fights for porcine injustices, especially in her own home.
Hooky first line AND flowing action AND character development.
And what if you think click-baity one-liners are a gimmick?
Take Troofriend by Kirsty Applebaum as an example. The opening line is:
I sit cross-legged on the floor.
So far, so mundane. The first page continues further on with:
Each one of us is unique. We have different skin colours, different eye colours, and different hair colours.
No action, just character description. The hook is, of course, that we've already been told the character in question is not human and so the ordinary takes on an entirely different quality.
Hooky first page AND flowing action AND character development.
What's your favourite opening line? Let me know below.
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