Between the slush and my own editing I’ve seen a lot of first chapters. Dozens upon dozens upon dozens of first chapters. I often notice similar issues over and over again and find myself giving out the same advice in first chapter critiques and edits. Two of these issues specifically, a lack of stakes and a hook, I came across in a book I borrowed from the library. If you are a writer who struggles to understand issues like stakes without examples then read on because you are about to get some specific examples. I’m going to to discuss two common issues I spot in opening chapters with a few bonus problems and I’m going to be very candid with you. The book I’m using as an example is a young adult magical realism contemporary, The Inconceivable Life of Quinn.
As a warning I quit reading after the first two chapters to get some other reading done and haven’t picked the book back up yet, so I have no idea of what happens after the first two chapters (yet). On Goodreads the book only has a rating of 3.2 and a lot of reviews complaining about it being “meh” or “boring.” Many called it “strange” and “odd” despite the great concept that has a magical realism touch to it. I’m always curious to read reviews of books after I finish to see what other people thought. Let me tell you exactly why the book got reviewed as meh and boring at the start so you can avoid making the same mistake. First let me be clear this book wasn’t rated low because the writing or story is bad, the book just needs some more reworking and polishing to have a wider appeal and the issues I’ve brought up are ones I see all the time, which is why I wanted to make this post. I find it hard to discuss common issues without examples, and this book provides some perfect examples for me to discuss.
The story has a fascinating concept going for it. The book is about a teenager named Quinn who discovers she is pregnant but has no memory of having sex. When her pregnancy is made public it turns her life upside down and jeopardizes her relationships and her father’s political career. The biggest red flag for me in the first two chapters is Quinn’s pregnancy. Her pregnancy is the inciting incident but it’s nowhere to be seen in the first two chapters. In fact there is barely any plot progression at all in the first two chapters. Instead the first chapter does nothing but set a few characters up with Quinn’s biggest issue being the fact that she has to miss a camping trip with her boyfriend. Now the author does hint at Quinn having kissed a boy other than her boyfriend, but the idea of her having kissed a boy before dating her boyfriend doesn’t seem to be a big deal yet based on the information I was working with. A little more character development would have explained to me why the kiss bothered her.
With no inciting incident or stakes to snag my attention, the first two chapters did not hook me at all. Generally you want your inciting incident to happen no later than your second chapter. Usually the inciting incident happens in chapter one. If I hadn’t read the blurb of the book, all I could tell you the book was about is a girl named Quinn whose father is running for Congress and she is upset because going to one of his appearances means missing a camping trip with her boyfriend and friends. Also she has a medical checkup to go to. But where are the stakes? She has nothing on the line when it comes to the camping trip and has already accepted that she can’t go. The doctor visit sounds like her mother is being a worrywart and nothing is wrong. And if something was wrong how would it change her life? With no inciting incident there’s nothing to hook me into her story. With no stakes I have no reason to care about her story. I scanned the first few pages of chapter three and it appeared the pregnancy is finally revealed in that chapter. I wanted that reveal to happen in chapter one, not chapter three.
Want to know of another issue I spotted in the first chapters that I saw as a red flag? The book uses Quinn looking in the mirror to describe her appearance to us in chapter one by having her try on a dress she decides to not even wear, making the whole thing feel like an excuse to describe her appearance and nothing more. I completely understand how hard it can be to work in character appearances in a way that feels natural, but relying on the old mirror method comes off as cliche. I think with the right editorial direction this book could have been more appealing to those who rated it low. All the opening chapters need is some rewriting and reworking is all. The best tool an author has is revising and it’s a must-have skill for a writer.
So remember, make sure you don’t take too long to reach your inciting incident and to reveal the plot’s stakes or readers will have a hard time getting invested in your plot and characters. Try to avoid exhausted cliches like revealing your main character’s appearance via a mirror unless you put an amazing twist on it. Finally, stay away from chitchat, especially if you are using it as a filler instead of using it to provide important information or progress the plot.
And don’t let this analysis put you off reading the book. If the concept appeals to you give it a go! Remember, I’m an editor and I’m analyzing books more than the average reader.