As some of our readers may remember, I was a Pitch Wars mentor earlier this fall. Now that the two-month mentor period is over, the dust has settled from the agent round (both my mentees came away with multiple agent requests! Hooray!), and NaNoWriMo is done, I finally have the head space to look back at the experience.
As a mentor, I read 75 submissions over a week or two, requesting pages from just over a dozen of those chapters. Sometimes it was clear within the first few pages that a certain manuscript wasn’t for me. In some cases, the writing was so polished there wasn’t much I could do to help. But in many more cases, something about the first chapter just wasn’t working.
Based on the feedback I sent to the writers who submitted to me, I offer the following questions to help shape your first chapter:*
1. Does your story start in the right place?
This may seem obvious, but I was surprised how many stories seemed to start considerably before the inciting incident. While conventional writing wisdom says we need to see some of the character’s “normal” so we can understand the change facing them in the story, I have been surprised at how little set-up is required to suggest what a character’s normal life is like. Ask yourself: where do things change for this character? Why is this day different from all other days? And then get as close to that action as possible.
NB: This is doubly true for prologues–part of the reason prologues so often fail is that they’re removed from the inciting incident.
2. Does the story open with a compelling scene?
Again, conventional writing wisdom says that novels need to start with a bang–we need to hook the reader from the very beginning. Often, writers (especially new writers) interpret this as needing to start their story with a big event–a massive war, a shocking death, etc. The problem with this, though, is that when these scenes happen without context, they don’t work to hook readers. Readers haven’t learned to care about the characters yet. So, start with a battle, by all means, if it’s necessary to the story–but give us a chance to care about the characters in the battle first. (Also, be aware that starting with a huge bang means that you will have to raise the stakes from an already high position).
And compelling scenes don’t have to be action heavy. Some of my favorite recent reads, like Jenny Han’s TO ALL THE BOYS I’VE LOVED BEFORE, open with quieter scenes, but such a strong voice that I’m drawn into the character’s world almost at once. Or the opening scene might raise an interesting question, or present an unusual situation. The goal of the opening scene is just to get readers to keep reading.
3. Does the story start with the right person?
Generally speaking, stories should follow the character(s) who have the most at stake in the story. While I have seen this brilliantly done from the perspective of a more minor character (for instance, Wuthering Heights, or E.K. Johnston’s The Story of Owen), those stories seem to be the exception. I will say, this wasn’t a common issue in the chapters I read, but there were several submissions where the first chapter opened with a different point of view than the one described in the query. Typically, you want the first chapter to open with the same POV as the query–and if your query isn’t about your main character, you may want to examine why.
But the question of point of view can be helpful when you revise your first chapter. I read a chapter for a premise I found compelling–the writing was strong, but something about the chapter wasn’t working. After reading through it a few times, I realized it was because none of the action was about the main character. She was a witness to other people’s action, not a player in her own right. So if your story does start with the right person, make sure that we see them in scenes that matter to their personal story.
4. Do we have a good sense of the character?
Sometimes first chapters don’t grab me because, despite smooth writing, interesting settings, and creative premises, there’s nothing compelling or new about the character and voice. By the end of the first ten or so pages, I want to know enough about the character to know what s/he wants, and what’s stopping him/her from getting that. I want to care what happens to this person–so much that I’m willing to read the rest of the book to find out. If you’re not sure if this is coming through, ask your readers if they can tell what your main character wants.
A trick that I’ve found enormously helpful for bringing out character in the first chapter is to make a list of the first ten things the character does. Then I ask: do these actions accurately represent who this character is? If not, I revise.
5. Is the action consistent through the chapter?
I read many, many chapters that ended with an intriguing hook or a great cliff-hanger–but I had to wade through the first 5-8 pages to get there. Agents aren’t going to keep reading until they get to the good stuff: make sure the good stuff is evenly spread through the chapter.
Two big culprits I saw slowing down the pacing: too much information and too many new characters. I think most readers have a certain degree of patience about the world-building and are willing to read for a while to have those questions answered. Don’t stop the action (especially not in the first chapter) to give readers all the world-building information/backstory they need. Try weaving it into later chapters instead. By the same token, if readers have to keep track of too many new characters (particularly if those characters have unusual names), the effort to follow the story overwhelms the potential enjoyment of the story.
6. Does the chapter end with a powerful hook?
On the other end of the spectrum, I read tightly constructed first chapters that ended neatly–that tied up a scene or answered a question in such a way that I didn’t feel the need to keep reading. Not every chapter has to have a hook (this is something my editor has emphasized), but I think the opening chapter does. It doesn’t have to be a cliff-hanger, but readers need to have some motive to keep reading. This can be a question that promises to get answered, or even some discussion of a plan in the first chapter that readers want to see unfold.
If you’re not sure what the hook should look like, here’s a great post on chapter endings (in fact, I made both my mentees read it during revisions).
7. Can potential readers tell what the genre is?
This may seem like a small thing, but readers start making conscious (and unconscious) estimates about your book from the moment they start reading. The opening chapter is like a mini-promise to readers: it needs to not only set up expectations, but it needs to follow through with them. As soon as a book veers from the expectations set by the opening chapter, readers start to get frustrated. I think it’s important to establish the tone and genre as early as possible–if your story is really a dark, gothic horror, don’t start with a funny light-hearted scene. You’ll attract the wrong kind of readers and miss out on the ones who would really get your book. I saw this primarily with contemporary fantasy novels–stories that gave me a great slice of the protagonist’s life, but if I hadn’t read the query, I wouldn’t know that the story would eventually include magic.
What questions do you find useful as you revise your opening chapter?
*and yes, I responded to everyone. And no, I won’t say how long that took me, suffice it to say that I have a much greater appreciation now for what agents do.
Rosalyn Eves is a part-time writer, part-time English professor, and full-time mother of three. She loves all things BBC, especially costume dramas and mysteries. When not wrangling children (and sometimes when she should be wrangling children), she’s often found reading. Her debut novel, THE BLOOD ROSE REBELLION, is forthcoming Spring 2017 from Knopf. She’s represented by Josh Adams of Adams Literary.