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« Face Off Friday: Free Expression or TMI? | Main | Wordiness: The Post in Which I Discuss Reduction of the Aforementioned »

What Kind of First Chapter Writer are You?


Chapter One. Two seemingly innocuous words. But they strike bone-chilling fear in most writers. If these first few pages fail to hook the agent/editor, your chance at getting published can fizzle in the few seconds it takes them to hit the eject button. No pressure, right?

So most of us know what a first chapter needs in theory. Starting in medias res, right in the middle off things. Hook the reader, draw them in, instantly. So why is it so hard to accomplish? According to these Harlequin editors, writers often fall into one of these first chapter categories.
The empty Book
Photo by Kazi Harok Al-Arafat (click pic for link)

The Free Spirit
This writer doesn't outline or plan, so she's not sure where her story is going, who her characters really are, or what the plot points will be. So this ends up in a meandering, unfocused first chapter.

Solution: Make sure that you revamp that first chapter dramatically after the whole story is together so that the threads are started clearly.

The Procrastinator

This writer writes her way into the story. Chapter one turns into a sea of backstory and description to set up the story instead of actually starting the story.

Solution: Often it is hard to start a story without writing out the backstory for yourself. Do this as a writing exercise, not as the first chapter. Then take the elements of that backstory and sprinkle them in throughout the story.

No-Man (or Woman's)-Land

This is related to the procrastinator. The writer spends too much time on other things and doesn't introduce the main characters until Chapter two. This is more important in some genres than others. In romance, hero and heroine should both make an appearance quickly. IMO, YA should also start with the MC. In suspense or thriller, you may have an opening incident from the killer's perspective or something so there are exceptions.

Solution: Your story is ultimately about your characters, so make sure we meet the main ones quickly. Endless description, world-building, etc. in chapter one will lose a lot of people.

Saves the Best for Last

This writer thinks that readers will hang on until chapter four or five for the main conflict/action to get going.

Solution: Start your story where it "gets good". If you find yourself saying to your beta-readers, oh just wait until you get to here... you may want to cut those first few chapters.


This writer is the storyteller so sets about telling us everything from the author's perspective instead of letting the characters talk for themselves. This separates the readers from the story.

Solution: Let the characters show the reader what's going on.

The Party Animal

This writer loves characters, lots of them, so there's a party of minor players and a swarm of names bombarding the reader in chapter one. Who's the MC? How can we tell?

Solution: Minor characters and subplots are great, but keep it to a minimum in the first chapter. The reader has to be able to identify the MCs.

The Show-Stopper

This writer knows how to write a killer opening line and scene. But after that, goes down in a blaze of glory. Think of these as that great movie preview that makes you desperate to see a film, then after you spend your 8 bucks, you realize the preview was the only good part of the movie.

Solution: Treat every chapter like the first chapter. You can lose a reader at any time. So make sure every scene is interesting, moves the plot forward, and keeps the reader wanting more.

I'm hoping that in my recent WIP, I haven't fallen into these categories. With the short length of category romance, you don't have a choice but to jump in and get thing rolling quickly. But I know with my first WIP, I definitely suffered from a combination of the Procrastinator and Saving the Best for Last.

Have you found yourself in one of these camps before? Which one do you gravitate toward if not paying attention?

Alright, now a few links:

  • Angie over at Gumbo Writer is re-launching the Rose and Thorn Journal today, which is "a quarterly literary journal featuring the voices of emerging and established authors, poets and artists." They have a free newsletter, so hop on over and check them out.
  • Editor to Rent created a list of Marks of an Amateur that they see in submissions. Really helpful.
  • And, I wanted to mention for those of you who are new to this blog that I am now marking all writing craft entries with the "writer toolbox" label. So if you want a quick link to all crafty things, click on writer toolbox in the labels box in the right sidebar. Or click here.
  • And lastly, I now have a retweet button at the bottom of each entry, so if you find an article helpful, I'd love for your to tweet me. Wait, that sounds dirty. Well, you know what I mean.
UPDATE: Just ran across this article today on what TO DO in the first chapter over at The Kill Zone. Check it out. Great stuff

Alright, that's it. Make sure you let me know what type of first chapter writer you are. :)

**Today's Theme Song**
"Kickstart My Heart" - Motley Crue
(player in sidebar--go ahead, take a listen)


Reader Comments (25)

With Lodestar, I'm definitely in the "free spirit" category, mainly because I don't have chapters yet.

With Oracles Promise, it's Procrastinator, Noman's land, and a dash of saves the best for last. And add in a helping of party animal. Mainly because there's a bit of a motley crue of characters to introduce. But the chapters are easily moved around so important characters are introduced first.

October 14, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterStephanie L. McGee

I'm not in any of those camps. If I have to be one, then it's most like the Free Spirit. I am a terribly anal retentive planner and outliner, but I know that everything must be done in moderation so for the first chapter, I let myself just write and see where it goes. Usually, that gives me a flavor of the type of story I want, then I go back and rework it and outline.

October 14, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSierra Godfrey

I began as a Free Spirit--I don't recognize myself as any specific one of those types now. I'm still experimenting with my style, hopefully I'm evolving in a good direction.

October 14, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterStrange Fiction

I think I'm somewhere between two camps -

"The Procrastinator" and "Save the Best for Last"... or maybe I'm a mixture of both and some of the others. *looks fruzzled*

It takes me 5 chapters to get to the real action. CH1 is generally background and worldbuilding. CH2 is character building. CH3 is plot building. CH4 is the first hint that something is wrong (and there is usually SOMETHING WRONG) and CH5 is usually the hook into the rest of the novel.

I'm trying to cut that down a LOT and get moving sooner, but I'm still not an action in the first chapter type of person.

October 14, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCatherine Kariaxi

I think free spirit. I'm not sure. I'm revamping my first chapter right now for that very reason.

October 14, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSusan R. Mills

I'm the procrastinator, but only during the first draft. In revisions, out goes all that nice backstory!

I don't mind doing this in draft, because it helps me get into the story.

Great run down tho--love it!

October 14, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAngela

I think I'm a cross between a Free Spirit and the No Man's land. Hence the maor rewrite of chapters one and two that is currently underway.

Euuggghh, did anyone else start out thinking that once the book was "finished" it was all going to be easy? I've spent more tme on it since it was "finished" than I did writing it in the first place!

October 14, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterGem

I'm figuring if I have a little dab of all those writerly characteristics, the bad stuff cancels out...right? :D

This was a great post. Thanks for putting it up. Likewise the PSA for Rose & Thorn.

Going to Twitterville with this now.

October 14, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAngie Ledbetter

Hey Roni, Twitter + TweetMeme wouldn't let me tweet this. Said there was no url attached.

October 14, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAngie Ledbetter

I'm definitely in the procrastinator camp. I'm on chapter 5 of my WIP, but I have a lot of backstory I need to take out.

October 14, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermelane

With my current WIP, I actually jump right in. Not sure about the others. Hmmm...

Loverly post, by the by, I think I might have a girl crush on you:) I'm married so don't misunderstand. I have a girl crush on Jennifer Garner, too.

October 14, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTina Lynn

I do believe I'm more of a free spirit! But, I do many many edit go-throughs and re-writes!

Thank you for posting the link and blurb for our Rose & Thorn!

October 14, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterKathryn Magendie

I think I might have fallen into a few of those categories once or twice. Actually, my biggest first chapter problem is wanting to start in the action, but then I have to add a ton of backstory to explain how the character got to that action. Luckily, I know it's a problem and try to look for it during edits.

October 14, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterKate Karyus Quinn

Coming from a screenplay back ground, I get in and get out with just the right info...(I hope)...I'm not tooting my own here but I'm now realizing just how useful the screenplay writing is because you have to show, not tell and everything has to have meaning because screenplays are LEAN and READERS are young girls who would rather be shopping.

I just finished my first chapter of my firsts book so this was perfect to love the universe...

much love

October 14, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterstaceyjwarner

lmao, Tina Lynn, I'm flattered. My current girl crushes are Evangeline Lilly (want to look like her) and Pink (want to kick ass like her.)

Angie, thanks for trying to tweet. I'll try to figure out what the issue it.

October 14, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRoni @ FictionGroupie

That's another great post! I think I am a combo of two and five and probably some others.

October 14, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAnna C. Morrison

I really needed this post. My first chapters fall under the first category. So when I edit the first chapter is in dire need of a rewrite. That is where I am at the moment. thank you for all those links.

October 14, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTabitha Bird

Very good list! I love the way that you've broken down the mistakes that we can often make! And what a great idea on putting the toolbox into your sidebar. AND how did you get the tweet gadget? That is SO cool!

October 14, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJody Hedlund

I've probably done all of these things at some point or another. It's hard to just "jump in" for me. I want to tell all the whys and wherefores.

October 14, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLindsey Himmler

I struggle with that first sentence. There's so much pressure attached to it! Often I'll come up with an idea and let it brew for a while until finally that first sentence hits me and it flows from there. If I try to force it before the first sentence comes, I just sit there forever rewriting first sentences.

October 14, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterStephanie Faris

I'm definitely a Free Spirit. I don't even worry about it until the first draft is complete. But, then I go back and completely trash the first chapter. That's a great list. I found your blog by Jody Hedlund's RT on Twitter. I'm glad I did.

October 15, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterHeather Sunseri

i think every writer may do all these - I hope I recognize them and fix them before it goes out! :)

October 15, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterShelli

I love the pictures you chose. Those made my day. Especially that last one. :D

I think maybe I tend to get into the Me-Me-Me scenario.

*goes to self-examine writing habits* Yup. That's me.

October 15, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterReesha

I love the way you broke everything down. Plus, your blog just keeps getting cooler and cooler! Wow. The party animal pic cracked me up!

October 15, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDawn VanderMeer

Thanks for this fantastic blog! I stumbled upon it, and its really fab- and inspiring. At the moment I am a mull-over-it-for-ages and then start to write, but I used to be a jump right in, and 20,000 words later wonder what I am actually writing about... I'll be back to read more. Thanks!

November 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLove Writing Again!

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