10 Writing Mistakes that Kill Your First Chapter

10 Writing Mistakes That KillBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

I’m teaching at a writer’s conference this week, so instead of one of my in-depth posts, I thought I’d create a quick checklist for you.

Here are 10 writing mistakes that kill your first chapter (in no particular order). Get them before they get you!

#1 – A Boring/Generic First Line

Don’t show me the character doing anything completely normal and forgettable. Waking up, getting out of their car, folding their laundry…

Your first line needs to raise questions in the reader’s mind and make them curious or hint at trouble/conflict. Preferably both.

#2 – Point-of-View Shifts

Head-hopping is always a problem, regardless of where it crops up in your manuscript, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. I mean a point-of-view shift carried out with a proper transition.

Confused? In your first chapter, one of the things you need to do is convince the reader to invest in your main character. They need to spend time with them to do that, and if you switch POV characters within the first chapter, the reader doesn’t have enough time to make that connection.

#3 – No Clear POV Character

This point is the doppelganger of (2). It’s extremely difficult to be interested in a story when you don’t know who matters, what they care about, and why they’re doing what they’re doing. Connect the reader to a character immediately and allow the reader to experience the story through that person.

(If you’re writing in omniscient POV, ignore this point, but make sure you wow the reader with your distinctive voice.)

#4 – Too Many Characters Introduced at Once

How am I supposed to remember all these people, especially if they’re introduced without much to set them apart? Drip feed your characters, and make each important character memorable in some way.

#5 – Clumsy Formatting

This could be internal dialogue that fills the page with so many italics that my eyes start to bleed, dialogue where I’m not sure who’s speaking, or any number of other distracting, confusing formatting glitches. These pull the reader right out of the story and shift their focus onto something they shouldn’t even notice.

#6 – Allowing a Character to Speak or Think Uninterrupted for Paragraphs (or Pages!) at a Time

I could actually expand this to say “allowing your character to do anything uninterrupted for too long,” but giving a speech or musing to themselves are particularly problematic. Since this is a short list, I’ll give you just three reasons why this is an issue. The first is that the reader usually ends up feeling preached to. The second is that you lose all sense of setting. The third is that it stops the action dead.

#7 – Too Much Backstory

Backstory can be hinted at, but it’s normally something you should withhold until later when the reader really wants to know it and it’s pertinent to what’s happening in the present. Why? Backstory, by definition, is over. The reader wants to see your character getting themselves into trouble in the present.

Which leads me to…

#8 – No Trouble or Conflict

I suspect that we writers fall into Happy Person Syndrome because we want to make the reader like our character or because we’re trying to follow the advice to “establish their normal world before you disrupt it.”

A calm, happy opening isn’t the way to establish your character’s normal world or make the reader like your character. Show them trying to solve a problem in their normal world. It’s active, it creates reader sympathy, and it shows the normal world.

#9 – Telling Instead of Showing

If you’ve read my book Showing and Telling in Fiction, then you know I’m an advocate for telling having a good and useful place in fiction. Your first chapter usually isn’t that place.

Showing is more entertaining and more interactive, and engages reader emotions—all good things if you want to hook a reader and keep them turning those pages.

#10 – Stilted Dialogue

Is your dialogue too formal? Do you have everyone using direct address? (E.g., “Did I see you at the movies today, Mary?”) Do you have too much filler dialogue? (E.g., hellos, goodbyes, how are yous.)

Dialogue doesn’t automatically make your book feel active. Good dialogue does.

Do you have any other common first chapter problems you’d like to add to the list? Which of these causes you the most headaches in your own writing?

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Deep Point of View is now available in print and ebook forms.

(You might also be interested in checking out Internal Dialogue, Grammar for Fiction Writers, or Showing and Telling in Fiction.)

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