10 Easy Ways to Improve Your First Chapter Right Now

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If you’re hoping that people will read your 300-page masterpiece, you’d better make sure the first ten pages are as close to perfect as you can get them. This article focuses on fixing ten common problems that plague the opening chapters of unpublished novels. Before you send that manuscript off to prospective agents and publishers, consider addressing the following issues to tighten up your first chapter.

1. Don't Introduce Too Many Characters

Have you ever been introduced to a large group of people in the span of a few minutes? Remembering all their names and personal details can be a struggle. If your novel introduces more than four characters in the first few pages, the reader may feel overwhelmed and lose interest. Ask yourself if all the characters mentioned in the first scene are absolutely necessary. Focus your time and energy on the protagonist so the reader cares about them first and foremost.

2. Don't Reveal A Character's Entire Backstory

Would you launch into a long monologue about your childhood in a job interview? How about revealing your deepest, darkest secrets on a first date? Of course not. Take your time when revealing your character’s history and motivations. Do we need to know that she had an abusive stepfather or lost her husband to cancer on the first page? Is it crucial to the opening scene? Feel free to drop hints—a faded scar on her cheek, a wedding ring dangling from her necklace—but leave the reader with questions to keep them reading into the next chapter.

This problem is highlighted in every writing class and every article about opening chapters, yet writers keep doing it and agents keep hating it...

3. Get Out of Your Protagonist’s Head

“Julie mulled over her recent argument with Tom while she washed her hair. He’s such a jerk, she thought.” Too many unpublished novels open with the protagonist doing something mundane while ruminating about their problems for three paragraphs. Save it for her diary. Readers want action and conflict, not reverie and self-absorption. Take two highlighters and mark up all the sentences as either external or internal to get a sense of your opening chapter’s balance.

4. Eliminate Grammar and Spelling Mistakes

It is hard to invest in a full novel if there are typos in the first few pages. Last-minute tweaks can result in minor mistakes or inconsistencies that you might miss. Before you hit send, read it for errors, take a break, and then read it again. It may seem like overkill, but it may mean the difference between an acceptance and a rejection. Also, double-check you’re sending out the most recent draft and not an earlier flawed version lingering on your laptop.

5. Stop Giving the World Away

Your novel is set on a landless planet where everyone lives on floating islands surrounded by mutant sharks. Great stuff! But do we need three paragraphs about the weather systems of the planet, the intricacies of its different races, and the biology of the sharks in the opening chapter? Details are wonderful, but too many can bog down the opening. The reader has an entire novel to become immersed in your world. Don't throw it all at them on the first page.

6. Avoid Thesis Statements

Don't open with a blanket statement that reveals the purpose of the paragraph that follows. I see this problem more often than any other when I am editing and critiquing. If you're not sure what I mean, read this article by Chuck Palahniuk on how to identify the problem of 'thesis statements' and how to correct it. 

7. Kill Excessive Adjectives/Adverbs

“The dazzling, radiant sunbeams cast their ethereal glow exquisitely on the the hyperborean river.” Put the thesaurus down and step away from your desk. This type of flowery language has a place (perhaps in hell) but the first chapter of your novel isn't it. Your writing should be tight and crisp in the opening. You'll have lots of other chapters in which to flex your poetic muscles.

8. Read It Aloud

I mentioned this in a previous article (10 Easy Edits to Improve Your Manuscript Right Now), but it's advice worth repeating. Awkward alliterations and weird phrases that might cause the reader to stumble will reveal themselves when you hear the writing aloud. If you've got someone you can trust, read it to them and ask how it sounds. Or better yet, have them read it to you. You'll be surprised what problems you hear that you didn't notice on the laptop screen.  

9. Don't Start Too Early or Too Slowly

Look at your opening scene and ask yourself: Can I start this later? If your protagonist is driving to his girlfriend’s house in the first paragraph, ask yourself if the novel can open with him on her doorstep, or even walking through her front door. Get to the heart of the action sooner, and your readers will thank you for it. And if you’re thinking of having a prologue, know that agents aren’t particularly fond of them. Starting too slowly is one of the main pet peeves of agents and editors. 

10. Don't Open With a Cliché

This problem is highlighted in every writing class and every article about opening chapters, yet writers keep doing it and agents keep hating it. If your novel opens with a character waking up from a dream, being late for work, or being chased by someone, they’ve seen it before. If you've seen a similar opening in another book or film, then most likely so have they. Get original!

Repo Kempt

Column by Repo Kempt

Repo Kempt has worked as a criminal lawyer in the Canadian Arctic for over ten years. He is the author of a book about seal hunting, a member of the Horror Writers Association, and a guest columnist for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. He lives on a cricket farm with his wife, Joy and his little dog, Galactus. In his spare time, he looks for an agent for his latest manuscript.

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