Don’t know what #FirstChapterFriday is?
After a year of analysing first chapters and finding the same strengths and weaknesses over and over, I’ve decided to bring #FirstChapterFriday to an end. I’ve learnt a lot myself about the importance of first chapters; about the differences between a chapter that keeps readers reading, and one that turns them off the book entirely. But I grew tired of repeating the same points month after month, so enjoy this final instalment while I figure out what else to do with my Instagram account.
The Body Farm, Patricia Cornwell
I liked the writing; it flowed well by generally not revealing more information than I needed to know, allowing me to understand things without being reminded I was reading a book.
There were a few instances where there was a full paragraph of exposition between two lines of dialogue, which threw me out of the scene. The second line of dialogue would have been spoken immediately after the first, but it took me about 8 seconds to read the text in between. This affected the pace of the conversation and, therefore, the scene.
Another plus is that the book started with the protagonist pursuing a goal, so I know there’ll be action and progression even before the first plot point. This goal is also directly related to the central conflict, so I know I won’t be wading through unnecessary scenes before the story starts.
There was another irritating dialogue flaw. A bunch of characters whose names I can’t remember were sitting around a table discussing the murder case, and instead of having “[name] said” after every line, there were no tags at all. I usually like limited dialogue tags because it makes the conversation flow better, but it was difficult to picture this scene when I had no idea who was talking.
The chapter ended without any steps being taken toward achieving the goal; it simply involved a bunch of people discussing evidence, and the protagonist didn’t decide what to do next. This means I’m not inclined to follow her because, as far as I know, she’s not going anywhere.
During conversations, only insert as much text as is necessary between dialogue, but also make sure it’s clear who’s talking. Also, make sure that you’re giving your readers a significant reason to read chapter 2.
Death Du Jour, Kathy Reichs
It started with action–with the main character pursuing a goal. Not backstory, not description. It started with the main character attempting to achieve something.
This action seemed completely pointless because I don’t know anything about the character’s motivation. Why was she doing this? What did she have to lose or gain? Was this scene relevant to the main story? Did it lead into the main story?
The first chapter ended with a new goal entering the story, pushing the old one aside and making me feel as though I wasted my time on reading about the first goal. What was the point if this action wasn’t what set the story events in motion?
Readers aren’t interested in what your main character is doing just because they’re the main character. Try to at least reference motivation and stakes when you first introduce a goal or the reader isn’t going to know why the goal is important.
Soul Survivor, Dean Koontz
The book started by showing the character dealing with something and showing me the current problems he’s facing, which could potentially be weaknesses that will hold him back as the plot unfolds. I got to know the character in a very natural way and felt like I was starting somewhere important.
I felt like I was starting somewhere important … to begin with. The problem was that I had no idea where the story was heading. I don’t mean the ending, I mean I had no idea what was going to immediately follow this first chapter. It gave no indication as to what was going to happen next, or even that something was going to happen next. I couldn’t get excited about reading further.
I’m not going to read this book because there was nothing to get excited about. If there’s nothing to get excited about, I’m not going to get excited. If I’m not going to get excited, I’ll read another book, one that does excite me. I’m not the only reader who won’t continue reading if a book isn’t exciting.
Cujo, Stephen King
It at least attempts to build intrigue and raise questions.
This intrigue isn’t actually intriguing.
The first scene speaks of a murderer who plagued Castle Rock before killing himself. Five years later “the monster” returns, except the monster refers to neither the murder, nor his ghost. What does it refer to then? We don’t find out in this scene.
This unanswered question should prompt the reader to continue reading, but it didn’t prompt me. In theory, if you get your reader to ask questions, they’ll keep reading to find answers. In theory. In practicality, they have to actually be interested in finding the answers to the questions.
“Monster” could refer to almost anything negative. It could mean a murderer. It could mean a supernatural creature. It could mean a rabid dog. The range of possibilities means it’s less likely to attract a reader because the book might not end up being about the kind monster they’re interested in.
Mystery is great. Having the reader asking questions is great. But remember that not all questions promise interesting answers, so you need to raise your questions carefully. Ask yourself, “How interested is a reader going to be in finding out the answer to this question?”.
Slaughterhouse 5, Kurt Vonnegut
The first chapter had good voice, achieved by the author not trying too hard to sound like he was writing a book. I find that a lot of authors try to sound like wordsmiths, which diminishes their authentic voice and makes the text less interesting to read.
I enjoyed reading this chapter, but by the end of it, I had no idea where the story was going, so I couldn’t get excited.
Your first chapter might be enjoyable to read, but it should also create momentum by beginning the story so the reader will want to continue past the first chapter. Also, trying to be a word smith can diminish your narrative voice. Readers care less about the words you use and more about how authentic the narrator sounds.