Back in February, I attended the Minnesota Writing Workshop in St. Paul. One of the presentations was a panel of agents and editors reading the beginning of manuscripts and commenting what they liked and didn’t like. As I listened in, I picked up 5 tips for writing the first chapter.
1. It Shouldn’t Be Boring
Okay, I think we all know our first chapters shouldn’t be boring, but writing an engaging first chapter is hard. I think the biggest mistake writers make is trying to reveal everything in the opener, resulting in too many details of setting, too much backstory and exposition (“info-dumping”), too much inner monologue, too much dialogue without context, etc.
Basically, we’re lacking a proactive character who is doing something interesting.
When a writer is spending too much info-dumping, they’re giving very little attention to the protagonist and what the protagonist is doing in the present. Readers need a reason to care about the main character to keep reading, and proactive characters will give the reader a reason to care. While world-building is important, your character should be doing something interesting from the start.
2. It Should Be Consistent in Tone
During the panel, there was one submission that had a strong opening line. It was something like, “The place reeked of death.”
Right away, the line gave the story a dark tone, and agents were intrigued. The story then continued on about middle school children checking out a creepy cave. The dark tone vanished, instead replaced with a cutesy tone. One agent explained she would stop reading because she felt cheated because of how the dark tone changed.
There should be consistency in tone throughout your whole novel, but the place where the tone is inconsistent is in the first chapter. This problem occurs because writers aren’t sure how to grab the reader, so writers will use a different tone to lure the reader in.
Keep your tone consistent. I’m sure you don’t want agents to feel cheated and send you that rejection letter.
3. It Should Start at the Right Place
One submission started with the main character doing her morning routine in the kitchen. She wasn’t doing much but drinking coffee and eating breakfast, so the agents got bored.
As the panel discussed the first page, one agent continued to skim down and found the line, “I heard the gunshot. He finally committed suicide in the garage.” The panel then discussed how that was so much more interesting and suggested the opening started there.
Finding the right place to start your story is definitely a challenge. Start too early and you might bore your readers. Start too late and you might leave the reader confused. You might not figure out where to start until you’re working on your tenth revision, but it’s something you definitely need to figure out before querying agents.
4. It Should Be Marketable
Agents gave more criticism than praise, and there was one submission that received a lot of criticism. I felt really bad for the writer. The first page opened up with a lot of telling, mostly about details of the gods and goddesses of a particular mythology. The agents got bored after a few paragraphs in.
One editor said based on the portrayals of the gods and goddesses there was no way she could sell this book. Ouch.
But that’s how the publishing world works. Publishers need to sell books in order to stay in business. There are so many published books about mythologies that a manuscript would really have to stand out in order to get an agent’s attention. If you’re writing a story in a genre that is already saturated in the market or if your book won’t attract a big enough audience, then it’s very, very likely publishers aren’t going to publish your book. It’s not fair, but business isn’t based on fairness.
5. It Should Stay Focused
One submission started with a teenager discovering she has super powers. I was intrigued. So were the agents. Then the story dove in to a long monologue about the MC’s guidance counselor, and after that went into a flashback.
Agents said they were confused to why the story had changed and they wanted to read more about the protagonist discovering her powers, not the guidance counselor and the flashback. Jumping around too much in the first chapter will make the readers want to put down your book. The solution here is to avoid jumping around in the opener.