4 Ways You Could Be Ruining Your First Chapter

Every writer knows the importance of the first chapter. The first page, even. These are where you hook your reader. They are the spots where you must make your story appealing and encourage readers to want to keep reading. That's crucial!
Lately I've been seeing a lot of great-looking books on Amazon with gorgeous covers and that sound interesting. In fact, just yesterday I saw a book on Twitter with a gorgeous cover and a description that immediately peaked my interest.
But when I took a sample look at the first chapter, within a few moments my interest was lost and I found myself very disappointed. Why? Because the first chapter had quite a few common flaws that I've been seeing a lot of lately--in both published and unpublished books.


1. Too much description.

When you're first writing your story (especially if you work without an outline) it can be really easy to want to describe every little detail about what's going on. After all, you want your reader to picture everything correctly, don't you?
Well . . . yes and no. There's a line that should be drawn, and sometimes it can be hard to draw that line. Some of the common ways writers add too much description in the first few pages are:

- Describing the MC's skin, hair, eyes, body shape, etc. right up front
- Describing the entirety of the MC's outfit as he/she gets dressed
- Adding obvious specifics to every item the MC picks up (gray cell phone, yellow banana, cold iced tea, etc)
- Describing the layout of the house or room the MC is standing in

When I was writing my first book, I felt that my readers wouldn't be able to see what I was seeing in my head unless I practically spelled it out for them. I made sure to describe the layout of Avalon's apartment, her outfit, the color of the clock on the wall, etc. I didn't want readers to be left without that detail.
And while yes, sometimes these extra descriptions are necessary (EX. I described Avalon's outfit because it was a uniform that everyone in her city was required to wear, and therefore showed some the type of world she lived in) I didn't necessarily have to describe everything right up front, which is where a lot of first-time writers go wrong. (This does not mean get rid of all description in your first few pages. There's nothing wrong with describing what your character looks like or where they live, etc. Just try to do it in moderation rather than in one big chunk.)
Try to cut back on the describing and let your story speak for itself. Allow details to fall into place throughout the story rather than right up front. This can be difficult, but it will make your first few pages flow a little better as the storyline often progresses much fast without an over-abundance of description weighing it down. Doing this also teaches you to trust your readers, which brings me to my next point!

2. Not trusting the reader.

When you add a ton of description or try to spell everything out in the first few pages, this takes the imagination part away from the reader. It shows that you don't trust them to figure out what it is you want them to know.
This was a huge problem for me when I first began writing my book. I made sure not to leave any details out, and I even (like a lot of young writers do) spent most of the first chapter describing why the world was the way that it was and how the city Avalon lived in functioned.
This is not necessary!
Your readers are not dumb. They don't need you to spill every single detail for them. Instead, give them small hints every so often that they will then piece together in the end.
Writing a book is like creating a puzzle. Throughout your story, you leave pieces for your reader to pick up. And in the end, they'll see the big picture!
For example, take a look at this excerpt from one of my earliest drafts of Unperfected:

"Usually I would enjoy the kiss; I would enjoy his arms around me in general. Since he’s eighteen and I’m seventeen, our schedules are different and we don’t get to see each other as often. He works the job the Regulation assigned him, and I go to school. That gives us roughly an hour of uninterrupted alone time a day: fifteen before first mealtime, and forty-five before day’s end at sunset."

WOW. That's a lot of information I packed in there, huh? The ages of the characters, the differences in their schedules, the amount of time they spend together a day, the fact that there are designated times to eat and end the day, etc. And while it's great that the readers know all of that, it's completely unnecessary to put it all in one chunk like this. In fact, it doesn't sound good to put it all in one chunk like this. It looks like I was desperately trying to make sure my readers had all of the facts, because, well... I was.
But that's not necessary! Your readers will pick up on small hints. Instead of putting all of this information in one place, I could add it in throughout the chapter. I could completely leave out their ages and have the reader assume how old they are based on how they act. I could cut out the part describing their schedules and let them show that later when they actually go their separate ways for the day. I could show there are specific times to eat and wake up and go to bed when those specific times actually occur in the book. In reality, that excerpt up there could look more like this:

"Usually I would enjoy the kiss; I would enjoy his arms around me in general."

Trust your readers. Your book is not the first book they've ever read, so don't baby them!

3. Telling instead of showing

This is a very controversial topic in the writing world because it's super subjective. However, a lot of writers tend to tell instead of show unintentionally/don't know what it means, so I still want to discuss it.
Unintentional telling instead of showing happens when you describe a character doing/feeling something by simply just . . . saying it directly. For example:

- Jack was tired.
- I felt defeated.
- She was completely heartbroken.

This kind of telling instead of showing is usually a common mistake for first drafts and first books, and is something that can be easily improved upon to strengthen your writing. Instead of simply stating how your characters feel/what they are doing, show what your characters are feeling and doing by describing it, such as:

- Jack could hardly keep his eyes open.
- The weight of the world settled upon my shoulders.
- Her heart cracked in her chest.

See? Those few changes can add a lot to your book and give your reader a chance to connect with your characters rather than just watch them feel and do things. If you aren't sure how to spot telling instead of showing, search your documents for words like "sad, happy, scared, etc." Often when you tell what your characters are feeling, you include the emotion word in the sentence.

4. Too many extra words.

Some writers love to be wordy. I was definitely very wordy in my first draft of Unperfected--in fact, my first draft was over 113,000 words!
It took a lot of work to cut it down, and since then I've been mindful of what extra words I tend to use. And event though it can be difficult, I force myself to leave them out.
For example:

I sit on the edge of the couch, my hands, sweaty and shaking, resting in my lap. My eyes are fixed on the black clock that hangs above the front door. It’s maddening, really - to watch the seconds tick by for hours. But since it’s the only adornment the Regulation allows in our apartments, it’s all I can do to keep myself busy while I wait for the day to start.
Becomes...

I sit on the edge of the couch, shaking hands resting in my lap and eyes fixed on the clock above the door. It's maddening--watching the seconds like this. But it's all I can do while I wait for the day to start.

Same concept, less words. Going back to the book I was talking about yesterday, as I was reading the first few pages, the wordiness of it all is what ultimately made me want to stop reading. There was so much extra information I didn't care about! Descriptions of a castle, two paragraphs about how much the MC loved this castle, and intro to more characters and how the MC knows them, etc. None of this extra information or any of the words moved the story forward. Or when they did, it was a little cheesy.
You can also be too wordy by adding unnecessary words like "just," "very," and "really." (For a whole list of these words, check out this awesome list from Go Teen Writers) However, I do not recommend removing these "weasel words" from dialogue, as they are something people naturally say while speaking and it keeps your dialogue authentic.

So there you have it! Four ways you could be ruining your first chapter. I hope you all have a wonderful Thursday and a fabulous weekend!

Comments

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