As an editor and a literary agency reader I read a lot of first chapters. Like A LOT. I’ve blogged about types of openings to avoid before. There are a few openings and issues I spot in first chapters all the time that instantly turn me off a book because I see them so often and they simply don’t grab my attention. I’m going to tell you some of my first chapter pet peeves and exactly why they don’t work for me.
Starting a story with a character waking up. I see this way, way too often. Usually when I see it the character is waking from a dream or their phone wakes them up in the middle of the night. This opening doesn’t work for me because A) I’ve seen it so often it has become cliche, and B) it doesn’t grab my attention. I want to get to know your characters right away. Start me with something more unique to them and their story and not something that could be used for any character. Similar to this beginning is starting with a character’s daily routine. It isn’t attention grabbing.
Info Dumps. These are usually used to build the world or character, but being told about a character isn’t as strong as showing their personality. If you throw too much info at me at once it will be too much to juggle and the plot will get lost. Lately I’ve seen a lot of books using info dumps to start off with a character’s life story. We don’t need to know a character’s whole life story, only the relevant bits and as needed. Sprinkle in information as you go. Don’t throw everything at readers all at once.
The mirror trick. By this I mean when an author uses a mirror to show us what a character looks like. It becomes blatantly clear what the author is doing, especially if the story detours to the mirror. Instead of finding an excuse for your character to look in the mirror to describe themselves, sprinkle in information on their appearance in other ways. Do they run a hand through their curly hair? Clean their thick glasses? I also don’t need to know every detail of their appearance since I’ll create my own image as I read.
Prologues. I’ve seen an overabundance of prologues in fantasy and crime/thriller stories. In fantasy they are often used for world-building, and in crime they detail the murder that the story is about. Often the information feels unneeded or too vague to be helpful. Sometimes the prologue is there to add excitement and tension, but as soon as it is over the following chapters drag and the tension created by the prologue goes up in smoke. If you are using a prologue to build your world or add excitement to grab readers since the first chapters can’t do so on their own, you don’t need the prologue, but you might need to revise your opening chapters.
Maid and Butler dialogue. By this I mean characters who tell each other information they definitely already know, but are spelling things out for the reader. Don’t spoon feed your readers. This kind of dialogue feels unnatural and awkward. Sometimes a sign of this is starting dialogue with “As you know.” If a character already knows something, then why is someone else telling them?