Things to Avoid in Chapter # 1 of Your Novel

While I can’t give you a “To Do List” for your chapter # 1, I can give a “Don’t Do List.”

Avoid the following first sentence/opening clichés:

Blood or other gruesome scene: “The blood was everywhere.” Is it shocking? Maybe it used to be, but not anymore. Actually, if it was something like “The frog’s blood was everywhere,” I might read on because that’s odd. The real problem with a “shock and awe” opening is that we don’t care yet. If a news article began with “Blood was everywhere,” we’d care (or might care—let’s be honest) because some real person has probably died and it is sad and horrifying. As a no name fictional character though, we don’t care. You have not given us any reason to care yet—we know we’ve just picked up a work of fiction and we have nothing invested in this world or anyone who might have died in it.

Detailed Physical description: Avoid the temptation to describe your main character. We actually don’t need this yet and we probably need less of it than you think. In the beginning, we need to know just the basics about the characters in the scene—as little background info as possible should be told (including character description). I’ve gone back and forth on this, but I guess the reader does need to know some very basic details so that he can form pictures in his head that won’t totally contradict the more elaborate description you may provide later. I think readers need to know the main characters age (approx), race, gender, and one telling detail. Sometimes, one telling detail is actually all you need. Don’t provide this information in “fact sheet” style.

Over writing: Don’t be wacky for the sake of being wacky or show off your mastery of alliteration. Simplicity is powerful. SIDE NOTE: Alliteration might be the least desirable type of figurative language as it takes the reader out of the scene. The reader will notice alliteration and say, “Oh hey, there’s some alliteration,” instead of “Man! That scene was intense!”

Drama for drama’s sake: Don’t have an exciting opening scene that exists solely to be an “exciting opening scene.” The scene/line should reveal something about the character, plot, premise, etc. It shouldn’t be surviving a plane crash if the main character just walks away, says, “Wow! That could have been awful!” and then goes on with his mundane life. If you start with a crash, the crash must affect him in a profound way.

Dreaming: I did this in my very first draft. I was able to provide a lot of character information, foreshadowing, and symbolism. But opening with a dream is horribly cliché and a bit of a cheat, so I deleted it and have never been happier.

Waking up: This is just as cliché as the dream. While we might learn a lot about your character by his/her routine, looking in the mirror, seeing his/her home, etc., it is still a cliché (and boring!) way to begin.

Pontificating: Beginning with a preachy soliloquy about life or the world rarely works. I suppose musing might be interesting if done well—if you begin with a particularly odd or fascinating question/situation (“It was only when I karate chopped my mother’s ghost that I considered the possibility I was insane . . .”).

Beginning with dialogue: I’m not sure I should include this one. I can think of some great books that start with dialogue. However, if you want to play it safe, the very first sentence probably should not be dialogue because some agents don’t like it. Others don’t mind it, though I’ve never heard anyone say that actually prefer starting with dialogue. I can’t imagine an agent dismissing a submission because it began with a set of quotation marks, but you never know. The safer bet is to provide a little context before the conversation begins (where is the scene taking place + some idea of who is in the scene or what is going on). Providing some context and setting should help the reader ease into the story, picture what is going on, etc. If you start with quotation marks, we don’t know anything about the setting, characters, etc. so that is off-putting.

I’m sure there are more. Let me know what I left off the list!

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One thought on “Things to Avoid in Chapter # 1 of Your Novel

  1. Sorry for the off-topic comment, but I can’t find an email or other contact for you… I would like to tag your blog from my post for The Next Big Thing, if you haven’t done that already. Your responding post would be Nov 28. That okay? @Laura_VAB

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