Tuesday, March 22, 2011

First Chapter Fever

While we were out last weekend I picked up some books by some authors (who shall remain nameless) I haven't yet read. Buying random books helps me expand my reading horizons, and about 50% of the time I get lucky and find someone I want to read again.

No such luck this time. I finished only one out of the four.

I thought I had selected a pretty good mix; the authors were a veteran, two rookies and a self-reinventor respectively. Four different genres, too. For anyone who is getting nervous, don't be. None were written by anyone I know or who drops by here, and none were published within the last two years.

I can nutshell the problems. Both debut authors apparently attended way, way, way too many writer workshops, because they put everything they learned in their first chapters. Every. Thing. The veteran was short on characterization/plot/voice/pacing/everything else and loooooong on repetitive sex scenes (I did finish that one just to see how often these people could do it without acquiring shin splints, oral abrasions or friction burns. Every twenty pages, I swear, they were at it like bunnies on Viagra.) The self-reinventor dressed up nice but didn't go anywhere but the mirror.

What all four books suffered from were different variations of First Chapter Fever. This syndrome can strike when a writer forgets about story to fixate on assumptions they've made about their readers, and (feverishly) writes to cater to those assumptions. The most common strains I've noticed are:

All-Upfront Infodumps: Typically a first chapter averages between two and five thousand words. If more than 85% of those words are an explanation of the backstory or the plot that is wearing a flimsy narrative mask, the author has broken out in a very bad case of infodumps. The writer's fear that the reader might miss some detail ends up choking the life out of the story and the reader's interest because the first chapter basically reads like a boring synopsis of the entire novel. It's a common malady among debut authors, but unfortunately not exclusive to them.

Cast Rash: These breakouts happen when every single character in the book is trotted out to be introduced to the reader. In one of the quartet I quit reading I met the H&H, their two best friends, their respective posses, the bad guy, the kind of bad guy, the two bad guys who weren't really bad guys, and another fifteen (yes, I actually counted) backstory characters. Let me get my calculator; that's (adding it up) 31 in all. In the first chapter, no less. Now, I like a big cast as much as the next series writer, but the reading experience was like standing in front of a hotel revolving door and watching people run in and out. I glimpsed some interesting-looking folks, but we didn't exactly get a chance to bond.

Time Period Pox: Commonly contracted by writers who fear their readers can't make a mental leap to the past and so attempt to shove them back via endless descriptions of story period-appropriate dates, historical figures, world events, weather conditions, architecture, clothing, technology of the time, transportation, furnishings, food, shoes, accessories, vermin, and on and on and on. This is most painful when it is incessantly delivered in the As-you-know-Bob dialogue between appropriately-dressed and coiffed characters. Any writer can catch this, but they're most vulnerable to burning up when they're writing in a new-to-them time period.

Transdermal Superiority Those who suffer from this condition seem to believe that a) they are brilliant, b) readers are morons and c) the first chapter needs to make this very, very clear. Immediate signs are clunky, complicated to incomprehensible descriptions of some manner of technology that are as exciting to read as a high school chemistry textbook written in a language other than your own, of which you understand just enough to ask where the bathroom is.

If you still don't get why a feverish first chapter is not a good thing, imagine you're at a party and you're introduced to someone new. Someone you don't know from Adam. In the first five minutes you spend talking to that stranger, do you take off all your clothes? Do you describe every single member of your family without pausing for breath? Do you insist on giving this person a narrated tour of the party's location from top to bottom? Do you prove to this poor slob how smart you are by explaining all of Einstein's theories as well as all of your theories about Einstein?

No? So why would you do the same thing in a book?

If I'm your reader, I want to start off with your characters, and what they're saying, and what they're doing -- not all of them at the same time, just the important one(s). The one(s) who will grab my interest (and it doesn't have to be a protag; I've read plenty of great stories that start off with the antagonist.) The characters I need to meet first are those who are most likely to keep me reading.

Naturally not everyone shares my prejudices or opinions, but some things are universal. I doubt you'll find a lot of readers who are mesmerized by a dark and stormy night, a cast of lemmings who rush them like they're a cliff, maps to every nook, corner and cranny seventeenth century London, or your blinding genius.

If I could ask all authors to avoid one thing in the first chapter, it's delivering a lot of story set-up. I like the screenwriters' approach; bring me into the scene as late as you possibly can. Don't worry, I'll keep up. First chapters that I consider dazzling establish a connection with me almost instantly. They make me forget that I'm reading. If you can do that, then no matter how you write it or what you put in the first chapter, I'm yours.

What do you guys like or don't like to read in a first chapter? What do you think is most likely to keep you reading? Let us know in comments.


  1. really great insights in this post!

  2. "a cast of characters who rush them like they're a cliff" puts it so brilliantly.

    The screenwriting approach really is helpful. I love Save the Cat.

  3. Anne V.9:24 AM

    I think the screenwriting approach is very accurate-it forces writers to present what is really important in the most precise way. I think every writer should take a little time to read an actual script/screenplay.
    April is Scriptfrenzy for those familiar with NaNoWriMo and I'm participating in it as a way to practice exactly some of the things you've mentioned-and my dialog.

  4. First chapters that provide me some insight into a character always hook me. I like to see some evidence that the main character is honorable and thoughtful. I like for the first chapter to start building anticipation for the story, particularly if there is a romantic relationship involved. Your analogy of meeting someone at a party is so apt.

  5. Anonymous11:56 AM

    I'm not sure what I like in a first chapter, but I do appreciate when an other does some type of prologue that sets up the tone of a book. For example, one author I have enjoyed will set up a scene with a "mystery" character and some tragic/important event. Then the story will revolve around the event. It's hard to explain, but I like this strategy.

  6. I agree with Mrs. Petrie. There are few things that draw me into a story more quickly than a flash of character insight at the very beginning.

    The main character doesn't have to be honourable or thoughtful to snag my attention, though. It can be more interesting to start with someone who doesn't (seem to) have any redeemable traits and then slowly be introduced to them as he or she evolves.

    My biggest turnoff: stories that blatantly inject moral lessons or the author's worldview onto characters. Whether I agree or disagree with their point of view I really dislike preach-y stories. There are ways to get a point across without hitting someone over the head with it after all. :)

  7. I always thought my novel would be a problem because it reads a bit like a script. I thought I needed to change that. Good to know I can move on with what I have. I prefer to go right into the action myself.

  8. My mind is completely boggled at the idea of 31 characters in the opening chapter. Even if that is every single character in the book, period, that is still a whole lot of characters.

  9. It sounds like most of those first chapters were written for the benefit of the author and somehow escaped the editor. As a writer, sometimes I need to do an infodump or put all my characters in one room or write down everything I can think of about a setting, but the difference is, I know better to put it in the actual WIP. Sometimes we have to write something to get it straight in our own heads. . . but that doesn't mean it is going to benefit the reader. I have ran across a lot of writers suffering from First Chapter Fever in my times. I usually don't stick around long enough to find out if they are cured by Chapter 2.

  10. Great post. I've seen a few that suffer from over info in the first chapter too!

  11. I don't like it when there are too many made up things/names/places/planets/etc. in the first chapter. If I get confused about who is who by the end of the first chapter or what is happening, then it's game over. I don't want to have to sit with a dictionary on my lap to read anyone's book.

  12. I said it before about scifi books I don't need a 10 page technical break down of why something works.It just has to. I don't know why or how my dishwasher works. I just know put the dishes and soap in push and turn the correct buttons and it does. the one book with the characters sounds like your at party and all 31 guest mob you nope not happening. Basically I agree with what you said whole heartedly.

  13. I agree that an "infodump" in the first chapter or even first few chapters can be a bit off-putting.

    The slow and methodical introduction of character and scene, similar to a screenwriters' approach, is best because it really is most similar to life. You rarely meet someone and are quickly introduced to her husband, sister, and cousin on her brother-in-law's mother's side and privy to all the family secrets.

    Well except of course for that one person who happens to be trapped with you in a long line or some other inescapable situation and decides that he or she's life story is worth telling, divulging way too much information while providing too much detail.

    And this scenerio much like one in a book can make the person and/or reader feel overwhelmed. What writers must keep in mind is that unlike the long line where a person will most likely stand and listen...a reader will simply close the book.