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, Description, or Showing and Telling in Fiction.)

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7 Strategies Villains Use to Trick Their Victims

Strategies Villains UseBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

In many stories, we don’t want to give away who the villain is right away. In other stories, we want the reader to know but our other characters not to. In either case, we need to drop subtle hints so that in the end, when everyone knows, it feels natural and organic.

In his book The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals that Protect Us from Violence, Gavin De Becker gives seven signs that tell us we might be at risk from another person. Con artists, rapists, or anyone who needs to bring down the guard of their victim for nefarious purposes will use one or all of these seven tricks against their victims.

Our readers might not consciously recognize these “tells,” but just like these signals should do in real life, they’ll make the reader’s subconscious recognize that something is wrong, that this character perhaps can’t be trusted.

Obviously, not everyone who uses one of these tactics is a villain. Context is important, as is whether one of these signals shows up alone or along with others on the list. However, everyone who uses these tactics is doing so with a goal.

Forced Teaming

The villain will use “we” or “us” statements to build premature trust. The keyword here is premature. You haven’t known them long enough for them to actually earn your trust, but when you feel like you’re in a partnership, it’s difficult to refuse the other person’s offers without feeling rude.

According to De Becker, “The detectable signal of forced teaming is the projection of a shared purpose or experience where none exists: both of us; we’re some team; now we’ve done it; how are we going to handle this?” (55).

Charm and Niceness

A talented villain rarely seems threatening at first. They’re charming and nice. They smile. And you let your guard down because of it.

“We must learn and then teach our children,” De Becker writes, “that niceness does not equal goodness. Niceness is a decision, a strategy of social interaction; it is not a character trait” (57).

Too Many Details

Most people who feel believed and trusted give only the necessary details when they speak. People who feel doubted add extra details to convince you, make you lose sight of the context, and, for strangers, make you feel like you know them better than you really do (and can therefore trust them).

Every type of con depends on distracting us from the obvious. – Gavin de Becker

While people can be telling the truth and still feel doubted, De Becker points out, “When people lie, even if what they say sounds credible to you, it doesn’t sound credible to them, so they keep talking” (58) after a person without a guilty conscience would have stopped.

Negative Labeling

De Becker calls this typecasting, but because it always involves a minor insult that the potential victim then feels the need to defend herself against, I think negative labeling is easier to remember.

The villain might accuse the woman of being a snob if she refuses to talk to him. He might tell her she’s too proud if she refuses his offer of help.

“You probably don’t watch the news.”

“I’m sure you don’t care about such-and-such good thing.”

It’s always a very minor slight, and his goal is to get her talking and defending herself. By doing that, he’s not only distracting her but also forcing her to engage with him.

Creating a Debt

De Becker calls this one loan sharking. The villain does something to help their potential victim. That small help—carrying a heavy bag, holding open a door, picking up something they’ve dropped—places their victim in their debt and makes it difficult for the potential victim to forcefully tell them to leave.

Unsolicited Promises

The unsolicited promise is the single best indicator that something is wrong. If someone makes an unsolicited promise, it shows they know you’re doubting them. Most people will miss this signal, but as soon as someone gives an unsolicited promise, you should ask yourself why you don’t trust the speaker.

Promises aren’t guarantees. With a guarantee, you know that if the speaker doesn’t follow through, you’ll receive compensation or the wrong they inflicted will be righted. Promises, however, “are the very hollowest instruments of speech, showing nothing more than the speaker’s desire to convince you of something” (61).

Ignoring a NO

I have a friend whose calls I’ll dodge if I know she’s going to ask me to do something I want to say no to. As awful as it sounds, I do it because she refuses to accept a simple no. She always wants to know why not and criticizes reasons she doesn’t think are good enough. She never accepts my no without an argument.

Although my friend isn’t a villain, she shares something in common with those who are. Anyone who refuses to accept a no is trying to control you.

The no’s a villain refuses to accept can be either verbal of physical. If a woman refuses to release her hold on her bag when a stranger offers to carry it for her, she’s showing him no.

When a villain ignores her no, two responses by her will mark her as an ideal victim. They’re both responses most polite women default to because of societal norms.

The first is to continuing to say no, with each refusal becoming less forceful, until she finally gives in.

The second is to negotiate. We use negotiation so regularly to soften our refusals that most women probably don’t even recognize it as negotiation anymore. De Becker’s example of a negotiation is “I really appreciate your offer, but let me try to do it on my own first.”

“Negotiations,” De Becker goes on to explain, “are about possibilities, and providing access to someone who makes you apprehensive is not a possibility you want to keep on the agenda. I encourage people to remember that ‘no’ is a complete sentence” (63).

If you missed the first post in my series on villains, you can read “How to Create a Truly Frightening Villain” here.

Have you read The Gift of Fear? Have you ever been in a situation where one of these tactics set off a voice in your head that told you to act?

Image Credit: Samuel Herrmann (from stock.xchange)

I hope you’ll check out the newly released mini-books in my Busy Writer’s Guides series–Strong Female Characters and How to Write Faster–both currently available for 99 cents.

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