We all know that first impressions make a difference. This is even more true for novels. I’ve picked up countless books that only stay in my hands for a few seconds. The top reason for this is that the first few pages fail to stick out to me. And these are actually published novels! For those of us who are still looking for that big break with a publishing company, tuning the first chapter into perfection is even more essential. Publishers need to know from the get go that your book is different from the piles of manuscripts on their desks. But how do you make your book stick out? How do you hook readers with the very first page?
We Sometimes Go Overboard
Okay, so I will be the first to admit that sometimes my story ideas are enormous and hard to fit on the page. When you have an intricate, complex, incredible plot idea, condensing it into a roughly three-hundred-page novel can be challenging to say the least. Even more difficult than this is writing the first chapter. As writers we need to inform the reader where they are, who is talking, what is happening, why this story is worth telling, etc. There’s tons to write in only so many pages. Add onto all of that the fact that readers need to be interested within the first few pages so they will want to keep reading, and now it’s clear why writing the first chapter is a nightmare for so many writers. In short, we tend to go overboard and pile too much information on readers until they topple over. Typically, there is one main reason why readers become overwhelmed when reading the very beginning of a book: excessive backstory.
The Long, Dreaded Backstory
Backpedaling in fiction usually occurs when the writer has important backstory to include that has happened in the protagonist’s past. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it can be if used incorrectly. Most successful books include some level of references to past events, summarizing, and flashbacks, but this typically comes after the first chapter. Readers want to jump right into the action, and if the action is a long backstory about a character they have yet to feel attached to, readers will likely lose interest. So why do so many of us fall prey to the urge to write the long, dreaded backstory?
The real problem is we try to do too much all at once, simply because we want our readers to know how amazing our world or main character is. We go overboard and shove chapters worth of information at readers in the space of just two or three pages, with one end result: we scare them away. While the backstory may be engaging and perfectly crafted, too much of it at one time impacts readers in an opposite manner. We’ve all had those instances where we get into a conversation with someone and within moments realize we are entirely out of our league and have no clue what the other person is talking about. That’s the feeling readers get when they pick up a book and are thrown into a complex world without any explanation, or they read pages and pages of backstory. We want to avoid this feeling at all costs, and this is how.
Start Your Story At the Right Place
When you are writing your first chapter, this is a great rule of thumb: if you feel the need to backpedal for most of the first chapter, you likely started your story in the wrong place. One of my creative writing professors once told me that a story should start as late as possible. This means that you want the story to jump in the middle of the action, depending on how late you can go without leaving out important elements or backstory. Many people start their stories too early, with too much exposition that lulls readers to sleep. However, some of us struggle with the opposite. If you find yourself backpedaling in the first chapter, then you probably started your story a little too late, which only means you have to launch into lengthy summary for your readers to understand the current action. This type of chapter is plain ineffective.
Balance is the key when choosing where to start your story. To reach the right amount of action and excitement, you will likely need to do some backpedaling. Most of this, however, will be limited to a sentence here or there summarizing a past event, not huge chunks of text outlining a past event in detail. If you start doing that, you probably just need to start your story with that very event. To achieve the right mix of action and exposition, you will most likely rewrite your first chapter several times, but it will pay off in the end.
Steps to Revising Your First Chapter
- Read through your chapter and highlight any sections that reference something from the past. This will give you a starting point to notice, visually, how much of your chapter focuses on the past.
- If a majority of the text is highlighted, you will be able to recognize for yourself that you spend too much of the chapter on the backstory. You must now decide if that backstory is needed in the very beginning for readers to understand what is happening. If the backstory is unnecessary, take it out and use it later throughout your book. If the backstory is all mostly necessary, you will want to rewrite most of your chapter.
- There are a few ways to rewrite the chapter if that is needed. One option is to include a prologue which can take place several years before the actual story begins. This is used successfully in countless published books and rarely fails to hook readers. One popular example is J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, with the first chapter taking place ten years before the next chapter. This allows you to incorporate the backstory in an active, engaging manner and then quickly launch into the main plot by the next chapter. The second option is to start your story during that important past event. While in some cases a prologue will work well, other times the backstory may be a central story element that can span several chapters. This is when you as a writer need to reevaluate the starting point of your story and try launching it off a bit sooner.
- Overall, you may want to experiment a bit. Sometimes you will not know which method will hook readers most effectively unless you try all of them, or some combination of both. At the end of the day, it is your story, and you know it best, so make the decision you believe will best hook your readers with the very first page.
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