Amateur Writing Tip: Stuff Needs to Actually Happen in the First Chapter

Let’s begin today’s post with a mental exercise. Re-read the title of this post, and take a wild stab at what I’m going to talk about.

Did you guess that I recently gave a newly-completed manuscript titled The Elemental Guard to my mother to read during our Caribbean cruise, and she stopped reading at page 64 because, quote, “Update: Page 64 — nothing has happened yet”, and I was utterly crushed that she didn’t like it, until she explained that the problem wasn’t the story, the problem was that the build-up to the story was so slow that she was bored to tears?

I certainly hope you didn’t guess that, because that would be mind-reading. And if mind-reading existed, it would be illegal. So stop reading my mind, or I’ll call the popo on you. (Note: “popo” is super hip urban slang for “the police”.)

Anyway, I thought I would share this latest bit of writing wisdom I’ve learned with you, because I’m just awesome like that. So, basically:

Stuff needs to actually happen in the first chapter. If you haven’t introduced the main plot by the end of the first chapter, you’re doing it wrong.

Here’s basically what happens in the current version of my first chapter. My daring and stalwart protagonist, Casey, wants to go on a rock climbing field trip, so he tries and fails to get his mother to sign his permission form. Then he goes to school, waffles around a bit with his friends, goes home, sleeps, goes to school, finds out his friend has forged his mother’s signature on the permission form, goes on the trip, climbs a cliff, and then falls off of it. What would you gather the plot is, from that?

Clearly the book, from the information I just gave you, is about a hapless boy who falls off stuff a lot. This is obviously incorrect, and wouldn’t make a terribly exciting story even if it were correct. Hence why you need to introduce the plot in the first chapter!!! 

This concludes my rant. Tune in tomorrow (or whenever I get around to writing the next post) for an update on iUniverse and their ongoing silliness.

Related image of the day:

Unrelated video of the day:

I used to listen to this song all the time, but it’s disappeared from the internet and is only available in HQ on one site now. So, here it is. Enjoy!

Categories: Writing | Tags: , , , , , , | 65 Comments

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65 thoughts on “Amateur Writing Tip: Stuff Needs to Actually Happen in the First Chapter

  1. Oh, I’m fretting now. Did I do it right? I must go back and check. *dashes off humming the egg song*

  2. I will B in tune to see what kind a Silliness Iuniverse is giving you because I’m thinking I’m going with them to help market and publish my first book what do you think?

    • Erm … if you’re seriously considering iUniverse, we should probably have a long talk. I’ll be posting a review of them in a few weeks, but basically … they charge a lot of money for everything, and they make a lot of little mistakes, but they do produce a quality book. There’s some upsides to going with them, like they take care of all the distribution and ISBN and whatnot for you … but there’s lots of downsides, like you having no control over the pricing of the book, and having to wait crazy long amounts of time to get problems corrected, and being charged through the nose for everything you can imagine.

      • Oh my goodness! Thank goodness we are talking…

        So these quotes on these websites are tentative to change?

        • Not quite. Those quotes are correct, but they’re going to try to sell you additional services on top of that. For example, if you want to get in their Editor’s Choice program, you’ll have to purchase a copy edit, which runs about $0.022 a word (works out to $2000 for a 100k word book). If you want to make changes to the cover design or interior text beyond your first free round of edits, it’s $75 and $100 respectively. And the “free” copies you get with the publication package, you have to pay shipping on them. Also, the books themselves are very expensive — my book is 388 pages, and the softcover list price is $21.95 (hardcover = $31.95).

          Don’t get me wrong — they always tell you the costs up front. It’s not like they tack them on secretly without telling you. It just costs an awful lot to publish the book, and whenever you want to make changes, it goes through them and they usually charge you. So … iUniverse is a good option if you don’t know anything about self-publishing / don’t have the free time to publish it by yourself. Otherwise, I’d say do it yourself and see how it goes before turning to them.

      • Interesting….look what I found at the end of the site:

        Disclaimer: Prices are subject to change without prior notice

        I am glad we are talking.

        • Oh, I didn’t even see that. Well, they never changed my original publishing package price. Dunno about the disclaimer. But see my other comment for the full breakdown of costs 🙂

  3. Oh this is totally true. I read a book the other day where the entire first chapter was about a woman deciding what to wear and the rest of the book barely mentioned her after that. I wish all authors understood this!

  4. Great post. Gone are the days when writers could wait 50 pages before getting to the action. As great as the old classics are, no reader is picking up a book published in 2013 hoping it reads like Emily Bronte.

    I think we writes make the mistake of thinking our readers will automatically be as in love with our characters as we are. Our readers are speed dating.

    • Totally true. And the look inside the book feature that most online retailers have make first impressions even more important. Readers literally only get to see the first chapter or two of your book–no more flipping casually through a book–so if they’re not hooked right away, they’re not going to buy it. And honestly, I usually just skim through the first page or so — I don’t have enough time to be reading whole chapters. If the book interests me after the first page or two, I’ll either keep reading the sample or buy it. If it doesn’t interest me, out of sight, out of mind.

      • Same here.

        That said, when I queried my last manuscript, a couple of agents told me the first page was too shocking.

        Oh, Eric, will you ever win?


        • There are no winners and losers in writing. Only victors, and the trail of defeated foes in their wake. Be one of those victors, my friend. Be one of those victors.

  5. Pacing–especially in the first chapter–can be so challenging. As a writer, you see the plot in its entirety, but your readers can’t know that the slow exposition will pay off later in the awesome, action-packed conclusion. And all too often, they don’t have the patience to stick around and find out.

    • I think it all depends on how you’re getting the book. If a book is, say, a present, I’m usually more willing to forgive a slow start because I know the person who gave it to me thinks it’s a good book. Whereas if I’m browsing a bookshelf looking for my next read, it needs to catch my attention immediately or else I’ll just skim right past it.

  6. jontystales

    Great Blog.

  7. cristaramone

    Reblogged this on The Insane and The Impossible.

  8. Some suggest that something should happen every six pages. I quite like a slow build but a conflict needs to emerge fairly quickly even if it’s only internal.

    • Every six pages? That seems a bit intense for me. Maybe if they’re minor things, it’s okay. My brother once said to me that his favourite books are the ones where the characters “noodle around”. As in, there’s very little plot, and mostly the characters just have fun and do awesome stuff.

  9. My main character kills a bunch of Ukrainian gangsters with some office furniture in the first chapter of Cannibal Hearts.

    • See, that’s a good opening. And from your description, it becomes clear to me that the plot of your book is an anti-Ukrainian terrorist who uses an office supply store as a secret front to hide his underground ring of cannibal drug dealers.

      • Well, no, it’s about… I haven’t the slightest idea what it’s about, actually. I’m only half done writing it. I just figure if I make enough weird and dangerous things happen my readers won’t have time to notice that I don’t have a plot.

  10. Reblogged this on Out of a Pure Heart Ministries and commented:
    This is an excellent tip. I was just talking to someone today and told them that I didn’t know how to start the book. Ok. So I have to catch the attention in the FIRST CHAPTER. Thanks Michelle for the tip.

  11. I had to stop reading a book because even by the 20th chapter I felt bored and now I realize the author never got to the plot of that book. Excellent points!

  12. I get bored very easily and so a book really has to pull me in at the beginning. It doesn’t have to be ‘action’, it just needs to be ‘intrigue’. If I get to the 50th page and I’m bored I usually stop reading (yes – I’m an unforgiving reader) 😀

    • I think more and more people are these days. Except, I believe, when it comes to high fantasy. That’s the only genre I’ve found that gives authors a little leeway.

  13. From your comment down below- I’ll have to admit I agree a bit with your brother. Some of my favorite books are more character oriented than plot… But it also goes back to there must be some vs., whether it’s man vs nature, nature vs nature, man vs man and so on. I think we all have our own ideas what a plot should be. 😉 Nice blog.

    • Thanks! Yeah, my brother’s pretty clever from time to time. He’s been known to stop watching tv shows because they have “too much plot”.

      Conflict is definitely a necessity. One of my favourite books when I was a kid was The Island of the Blue Dolphins. It’s about a girl who gets stranded on a tropical island for years, so it’s entirely man vs. nature and man vs. man. Fascinating story. No bad guys, no evil megacorporations, just a girl and an island and awesome.

      • I remember that book 🙂 I was thinking about The Thorn Birds, Evergreen, and Little Women, yeah I know they’re older, but I love the books that follow the characters. If there’s too much going on, I’ll admit I get lost and sit it down rather than try to figure it out. I think there’s a lot of authors now that just try to jam a lot of sex/violence in to have something every chap.

        • I felt that was one of the problems with the later Harry Potter books — specifically 6 and 7. I feel like JK Rowling got so caught up in the plot that the character development was very little compared to earlier books.

  14. Lucky you for having such an honest mother! But I know precisely what you mean. I’ve read no end of books and after five chapters – “yawn, no more thanks”. It’s also the reason I’m feeling frustrated with my own book that I’m writing. I’m not convinced my opening chapter is strong enough! Great post 🙂

    • Thanks 🙂 My mother is definitely honest — annoyingly so, some time. Most of the time. Lol. But I love her all the same.

      May I make a suggestion for your first chapter troubles? Print it out, locate some friends who don’t mind reading it, and ask them what they think. More minds never hurts 😀

  15. Gwen

    Ouch – that has to hurt to receive that advice from your mom! At least your mother is honest and up front with you and apparently knows a thing or two about writing. It’s great to read such honest posts! Thanks

    • I wish she was a little less honest and sugar-coated things more, lol. But despite her delivery method, she never fails to get the point across, which I guess is exactly what you want in a beta reader / editor 🙂

  16. I actually DID guess that was what the post was about, oddly enough! Although I think we’ve already established that I’m in your head–sorry, I meant to get out, I’m just a slow mover.
    Anyway! Yikes. 64 pages IS kind of a lot for not much to happen… Although hey, beginnings suck. Beginnings and endings–the middle is the sweet spot. Shame that’s only 1/3 of it! (And I’m sure you’ll fix it and make it awesome.)
    When I read this post I, like everyone else I’m sure, went back to look at how my own story starts. Technically it has a prologue, but I’m actually wondering if I shouldn’t just make the prologue chapter 1 and go from there. And, strictly speaking, the prologue is just a dream my MC has, but I do feel like it introduces the idea of weird things happening that will follow. What currently passes as the first chapter is slow character-developmental stuff–but since I’m actually considering combining the prologue and first chapter all into CHAPTER ONE, maybe I can be excused of that. Maybe. (Second-guesses every decisions ever.)
    Wow, sorry, that ended up being a lot about my story. But I guess that’s just thanks to this very good tip. 🙂

    • Well, if you want to see if your first chapter is too slow, just send it to my mother. I’ll watch her carefully and report back on how many times she complains about it being mind-numbingly dull. 3 and less is pretty good — anything more, and you’ll definitely need a re-write 😀

      I personally dislike prologues, although everyone has their opinion on them. Have you ever read Game of Thrones? The prologues in that series kill me. They’re always about totally irrelevant characters doing things that are only slightly related to the plot. Ahhhhhhhhh. So I feel you should roll your prologue into your first chapter 😀 But if you decide to keep the prologue, just ignore me and my anti-prologue ramblings. What do I know? I can’t even eat a bowl of pad thai without scattering peanuts all over the place.

      • Well THANKS for making me want pad thai now. 😛 That’s just useful since there isn’t any handy. BUT, as for the rest…
        Hey! Your mom seems like a great editor/helper. I wish I had someone so bluntly honest and willing to read my work at my disposal–my mother reads strictly murder-mysteries-with-recipes-included books these days, so my YA Fantasy isn’t really up her alley at all, and although I do have a friend who will probably be a beta-reader, she tends to love everything I write without question–and sometimes you need someone to complain aloud about how mind-numbing a section is once in awhile!
        And you know what? I’ve heard plenty of people talk about how prologues are pretty unnecessary, and I think that’s the case here, so I think I will. IT IS DECIDED. Lord knows that will be one of the easier changes I have already written down to make during editing.

        • Hahaha wow, when you make a decisions, you really make a decisions! Bing bang boom DONE. Love it.

          If you’re looking for beta readers, I happily volunteer. I do insist on getting the entire manuscript, though — I’ve had people send me partial manuscripts before and it’s maddening. MADDENING! And I can be as cruel or kind as you want — just let me know before I start making my comments, lol.

          • Ha ha ha, oh definitely, you’re already hired. 🙂 Although that is simply a manner of speaking, because I have only moths coming up out of my wallet at the moment. But, in return for you getting no monetary compensation whatsoever, you will get to read my no-doubt problem-riddled manuscript ahead of the pack, and also I will let you be as straightforward as you want. I mean, no need to scream problems at me like a drill sergeant of course, but you’ll be free to give me as much honest criticism as you wish without fearing retribution–that’s the point! (And of course you can have the whole thing! Doesn’t do me much good if you only help with half now, does it?)

  17. Harsh as that was, I think I like your mom. Hey, at least she reads it… my mom won’t read mine because she doesn’t like Fantasy. Aren’t moms supposed to receive hand-made ashtrays (even when they don’t smoke) and novel drafts with equal enthusiasm? *temper tantrum*

    Very much agreed on the stuff happening. Even when it does, it doesn’t guarantee a reader will stay (experienced this in my reading life recently), but at least they know what they’re putting down.

    (BTW, I adore my mom. I’m just saying that between her and my husband who hates reading, I could use a close beta reader or two!)

    • She’ll read it, all right, but she won’t be happy about it, lol. “Michelle, I’m so busy right now.” “Michelle, I’m not in the right frame of mind.” “Michelle, this isn’t even in English.” “Michelle, I’m running away to Russia with my Siberian lover Vladimir.”

      It’s always excuses with her!

  18. Great post, Michelle! Agreed. When I try to find new books to read, if I’m not super thrilled by the premise, I’ve gotta see things happening in the first chapter. And that’s usually how it goes down. I read the first chapter to find out if I want to read more. So some plot stuff has to go down right then and there.

    • Otherwise you get to the end of the first chapter and you’re like … what’s the point of this story? Which is never a good mindset to be in when deciding whether or not to buy a book 😀

  19. I don’t think the first chapter necessarily needs to get the *main* plot rolling. At least, I don’t approach it that way, I look at it like a James Bond film. That first opening portion needs to be awesome and grab the reader by the hair, dragging them along for the sweet-ass ride. And just like Bond, sometimes that opening is something inane and unrelated, but sometimes it ties into the main story and is pretty satisfying either way.

    Just fill the first chapter full of car chases, gunfire, skydiving, and sexy situations. And explosions. Lots of explosions.

  20. Like! Exposition is all well and good, but cut to the chase already!

  21. I’m no good at writing narrative; so I’m an unpaid script writer. I’m hoping the unpaid part will vanish this year. Love your sense of humor. Thanks for stopping by and liking my blog..

  22. beatniksifu


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