First Chapters Are the Worst!

Quick announcement: I’ve been on blogging hiatus for a couple of weeks due to losing a close family friend. It’s left us all deeply shocked and upset. I’m not sure if I’ll be back to regular posting just yet, but this particular post if more for a writing buddy of mine. I started it a few weeks ago actually, but after critiquing his new chapter one, I questioned my thinking.

It doesn’t take an experienced writer to know that the first pages or first chapter of a novel needs to make an impact. But they can be hard and frustrating to get the right elements across. You have so much to do in order to make your readers want more. But it’s also highly subjective as to what grabs a reader, especially in fantasy.

As a writer with multiple WIPs, I’ve written many chapter ones and I’ve critiqued too many to count. I scrutinise every line and ask myself multiple questions about their necessity, reader interest, and prose etc. My writing buddies do the same for me. We help each other get our chapter ones good enough for readers to want to continue. When I see bestselling books do the very thing my writing buddies and I try to avoid in our openings, it makes me wonder why we bother. 

So I did a little experiment a couple of weeks ago. 

I bought four bestsellers recently, all on my TBR list for months. I couldn’t choose which one to read first, so I read the first chapter of all of them. A couple included preludes/prologues, so I read those too. I like preludes and prologues if they’re done right, but that’s for another conversation.

Honestly, I was quite surprised at many of the chapter one elements that didn’t work for me. 

Let’s start with book number one. 

  • First line was untagged dialogue. 
  • No visuals until page 3. I don’t need every detail down to the crown moulding, but gimme something.
  • Bland narration. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t a particularly interesting voice. I don’t mean to suggest authors use all fancy words and weird structures. But there’s room for creativity in a simple narration.

Book number two.

  • No MC connection whatsoever. 
  • Instant hatred for something the MC had zero interaction with in the chapter apart from watching. It felt for too unfounded for me to side with her in that.
  • Telling. Lots of telling. I hate them. They’re powerful. Ok. 
  • Info dumps. Soooooo many. The ridiculous thing was that there were opportunities to drop things in gradually when the reader needed to know.
  • Too much world building on things I didn’t need to know. And when I read on, there were places the author could do this in later chapters when I actually needed to know. I’d forgotten it all by the time I needed it. But then the author described it all again. Wasted page time for sure.
  • Word repetition all over the place.

Book number three.

  • Started with a dream. I half let it off since it’s a dream of something that actually happened. But it felt too disjointed for an opening page.
  • Short lines of thoughts and quick action. Not really helpful to start me off.
  • The story felt like it started in the wrong place. It started after a major event that affected the MC’s life. The author could easily have added a short chapter leading up to a really quick moment that would require a third of a page, it’s that quick.
  • Lots of filtering.

Book number four. This was much better. Only a couple of things.

  • The author described action but left out details to help me visualise the action. It was far too vague at times.
  • Describing the fantastical races was a bit telling. But I’m just picking on that because I expected better from the author. But it could havebeen done much better.

But you know what? I still want to read more of these books. And it makes me wonder if I’ve become too analytical over getting all these elements right in chapter one. Can interesting worlds be enough even if the prose is lacking? Can exciting events make up for constant info dumps?

I think it can. So while I will keep trying to make my chapter ones work in as many senses as possible, I’m more aware that writers don’t need to hit all the targets to win over a reader.

Image by Markus Winkler from Pixabay


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