*Disclaimer 1- There are exceptions to every rule. Plenty of them. Each of the following could be used well in a story. But usually it will be by someone who knows what they are doing, does it on purpose, and didn’t just assume off the bat that they were the exception to the rule. (Successful instances may also often result from subverting a trope or making fun of a cliché.) Also, these aren’t “rules”. They are more a general set of guidelines. Ultimately, there is really only one rule you can’t break as a writer, and that is to bore the reader or lose their trust. If your reader is staying engaged and entertained, just keep doing what you’re doing.*
*Disclaimer 2- When writing your first draft, don’t stress about any of these “rules.” Write whatever comes out naturally. Rough drafts are meant to be rookie drafts by nature. Once written, they can be edited and polished using tips from lists like these, and made to contend in the big leagues.*
Enough disclaimers, let’s get to that list already.
- Dream Sequences
You want to have a dream sequence somewhere in your story? Fine. But please don’t start your story that way. It’s a let-down for readers. We don’t know your world or your characters yet. We trust you as an author to introduce us to them from the get go, so we believe what ever you’ve told us is real. When it’s revealed that it was all just a dream, and here is the real reality, we feel cheated. It feels like you hooked us with a lie, and it was a cheap shot. So don’t do it.
- Rise and Shine
Don’t start your story with your character waking up. Honestly, it’s probably best avoided all together for the beginning of any chapter. The reasoning behind it is that we want to cut straight to the action. Reading that someone woke up, got dressed, ate breakfast, chatted with their family, got stuck in traffic, and then showed up late to work is boring. If showing up late to work is where the action starts, (because if they’re late one more time, they’re fired), then start right before the action. Start in the middle of traffic, and what the character is going to do to try and get rid of their late-to-work/about-to-be-fired problem.
- No Clearly Defined Goals
Watching a character go throughout their day, just for the sake of showing us a typical day in their life, is boring. Yes, your first chapter should establish the status quo for your main character, but think about your own life. You still have goals and objectives for each day, right? Get your work done early so you can beat rush hour traffic? Flirting with that cute guy at the coffee shop because you’re pretty sure he likes you and just needs some encouragement? Reading as many writing blogs as possible because you really want to publish your novel? They don’t have to be massive save-the-world goals, but every character, in every scene and every chapter, needs to have some kind of a goal. Even your first chapter. No, especially your first chapter. Characters without purpose bore us; they confuse us. When something happens to them, we don’t always know if it was good or bad, if they wanted it to happen or not, because we don’t know if it helps or hurts their goal, because we don’t know what their goal was.
- Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall
One of the most cliché mistakes you can make is to have your character look at their reflection in a mirror and describe themselves. It screams, “I want to you know what my character looks like but don’t want to weave it into the story naturally, so I’m just going to put them in front of the mirror and list it all off for you real quick.” When was the last time you looked at your own reflection and mentally listed off your own height, weight, body type, hair color, eye color, distinguishing birth marks or tattoos, etc. You might notice a new pimple, or bags under your eyes, or your roots starting to show, but that’s about it. Don’t have your character list off their physical attributes while staring in a mirror (or just staring down at their own outfit for that matter). Not in the first chapter. Not anywhere else. Just don’t do it.
- Meet Mary Sue
Another cliché you want to avoid are Mary Sue characters. (Or for male characters, Gary Stu). The cliché goes like this: the character is practically perfect, and if they have any “flaws,” they never face the consequences of them. Everybody is attracted to this character, wants to be this character, and things just inexplicably always turn out alright for this character. Never fired a gun before? That’s okay. Mary Sue just so happens to be a sharp shooter with less than five minutes practice. Work long hours in the office and spend every spare moment writing his novel leaving no time for exercise? That’s okay. Middle-aged Gary Stu still has the same surfer body he had back in high school.
These characters are unrealistic, difficult to relate to, and usually lack any meaningful character arc. If you want to see if your character counts as a Mary Sue or Gary Stu, check out this litmus test here:
This one kind of goes with dream sequences. There may be room in your story for a flash back later, but don’t put one in your first chapter. If you need to get that backstory in, find a way to weave it in naturally through dialogue with other characters or internal dialogue. Just make sure it makes sense for the characters to be talking about that event or thinking about that thing at that moment.
That’s not to say that your story has to be strictly linear in nature. There are plenty of good books that jump around their time line. I just finished reading “All The Light We Can Not See” by Anthony Doerr, and he bounces back and forth through time masterfully. But none of those time jumps comes across as flashbacks.
- Death, loss, and other massive tragedies**
The advice is always to start your story with a hook, to start with the action, to really pull your reader in. All too often, however, new writers will take that advice too far, and throw in a car accident where the best friend dies, or start with the character coming home from the funeral of their grandmother, completely distraught. The problem with putting such massive moments in your first chapter, however, is that we as the reader never knew the best friend or the grandmother. Heck, we barely know the main character. We know we probably should feel bad for the main character because they’re going through something horrific, but we don’t really feel it deep down. How could we? We haven’t had a chance to learn about and care for these characters yet. Having the main character feel these huge emotions that we don’t connect with makes us feel like outsiders. Save the big tragedies for later in the story once we can feel that loss right along with the character.
**Please note that for crime or mystery genres, starting a story out with a tragedy or murder is often expected. But in those cases, the death itself isn’t expected to carry any emotional weight to it. It is merely the stepping stone of the plot, the thing that sets the game afoot so to speak.
- It was a dark and stormy night…
Back in the old days, authors often opened their stories with lengthy descriptions of the setting and the weather in order to set the stage. It worked back then. There was no video streaming onto everyone’s phone, flooding them with instant images at all hours of the day. Today’s readers aren’t as patient. They will get bored.
Even short descriptions of the location or weather can be troublesome though, if there is no character reaction to, or involvement with, the description. So by all means, set the stage for us; we need to know where we are, so describe the setting and the environment. But do it through the lens of the character, and use that description as a tool to convey the character’s emotions about his setting and environment. (For more information on this, see my blog post: https://whitneyhemsath.wordpress.com/2017/03/27/show-dont-tell)
- The Clown-Car Approach
Sometimes new writers feel like they have to introduce every character, even the minor ones, right from the get-go. The result is a first chapter that feels like a clown car—the doors open and more and more characters keep spilling out, leaving the reader confused as they struggle to keep track of them all. Generally, characters we meet in the first chapter are ones we assume are going to be the most important. Help your reader keep track of who is a main character and who is a minor one by saving minor characters and sub plots for later in the book. Now, obviously, if it makes sense according to the story for your main character to interact with a minor character in the first chapter, go for it. I’m not saying you shouldn’t put any minor characters in the first chapter. Just don’t try and cram them all in. Not everything has to be planted in the first chapter.
This is probably the most universal mistake of all new writers, or even seasoned writers cranking out a first draft, and is something that should be avoided throughout your whole manuscript, not just the first chapter.
An info dump is any piece of information tucked into the narration or dialogue that doesn’t make sense to be there. For example, a girl telling her best friend, “My boyfriend Johnny who plays drums in a band asked me to be his groupie.” If it really is her best friend, she would already know the boyfriend’s name is Johnny and that he plays the drums. How the line would have gone is, “Johnny asked me to be his groupie.” Adding in that extra information wasn’t natural for the characters, it was only for the reader’s benefit, and thus pulls the reader out of the story by making them aware of the author and how the author is trying to spoon-feed them this information.
The mark of a seasoned writer is one who can weave in the extra information somewhere that feels natural. That’s the key. It has to come across as natural for the characters and the situation.
Example: Two siblings close in age are walking along to school. The younger one starts thinking about how they aren’t close anymore like they used to be, and wondering if it will ever be the same.
The internal dialogue of the younger one will feel like an info dump if it is presented out of the blue like that. It won’t feel natural. But if they are walking to school and there’s a moment of silence, the younger one breaks it by trying to spark up a game of “I spy” and the older one ignores them and runs up ahead to walk with his friends instead, now it feels natural for the younger sibling to think about how they aren’t close like they used to be and wonder if it will ever be the same as before.
If there is background information about the world, the culture, the character, or anything else, give your characters a motivation in the current action of the scene to talk or think about that back story. If you’re having a hard time fitting that information into a scene, there’s a good chance the reader doesn’t need that information yet. Just like you don’t have to introduce all the characters at once, you don’t have to give the reader all the details of the world or back story of the characters in one go. Let that information build naturally and gradually.
So there you have it. Ten things that are often red flags for editors and agents, signaling you as a rookie writer. There are plenty more, but that’s a good start. If you have others you’d like to add to the list, feel free to drop them in the comments below. And if you have any of these in your first chapter and find yourself saying, “But, Whitney,..” go back and read disclaimer #1. Happy Writing!