Four things to Avoid in writing--Especially the first chapter!
Updated: Oct 4, 2021
Hello, friends! It's such a pleasure to have you here. Jumping right into it: What is one of the hardest things with writing? Getting started. A lot of writers have a hard time knowing where to start with their story, I did too. The first draft of Defenders of Radiance: The Ajoiner Realm started out horribly. Here's why.
"The year was 1055; a foul darkness had swept over world, leaving no survivors, natural disasters following under the dark cloud of evil destroying the once beautiful places of the world. The only safe place left was a circle of five cities with nowhere to run from an army of black, shadowy creatures. Creatures called the Overtaken, a monster so vile that even a single scratch from their sharp claws will turn its victims in to mutilated, mindless monstrosities claiming super strength and speed as their only allies. These tormented souls are known as the Fallen Ones. To make matters worse the strongest Overtaken have been said to be able to take control of its victim's body and mind and walk around in their skin, slowly driving the victim insane then killing them. Times were dark indeed, so dark mothers abandoned their new born infants and left them to at the only place they could, the Hilltop Orphanage. The orphanage rested on a hill surrounded by a tall iron posts with spiked heads warding off any desperate child bold enough to try and escape their torture chamber, a tall stone building housing the parentless kids loomed ominously over a large courtyard hidden by thick concrete walls. No one ever saw anyone go in, and most certainly never saw anyone come out. The only hint that it was still open was trails of smoke sprinting out of the chimney, anxious to leave the morbid place behind. Truth be told, most of the children were given good homes, but no one knows that, no one accept the ones that never leave. Some people believe that the children are used to test new weapons of destruction. Those would be the people that are right. What people don't know is the children are the weapons.
1085, thirty years later.
Bravery sat in the widow seal in a tower overlooking the city of Fortitude."
Beyond the unbearable grammar is the simple fact that it is BORING! The following paragraph also reverts into a flashback (I'll spare you the pain of reading that monstrosity).
Again, another no-no. So what exactly makes it boring? Here are 4 things to avoid in your first chapter.
1) Starting with the date
Your first sentence is the metaphoric life or death of your book after the cover art (There will be a post on covers later). A date sets the tone, which IS important for the first chapter, but the first sentence is not the place for it. The very first sentence should evoke powerful emotions from your reader that take hold of them and launch them into your story. Take a look at these first sentences:
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hold, and that means comfort.” — J. R.R. Tolkin, The Hobbit (1937)
"The Tesseract has awakened. It is on a little world, a human world." — Joss Wheden, The Avengers (2012)
"Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show." — Charles Dickens, David Copperfield (1850)
The first sentence isn't always supposed to shock the reader—though in most cases today they do. Look at the first line of Tolkin's The Hobbit. It has a very appealing nature to it and draws the reader in with serenity. This is very difficult to achieve in today's fast-paced society, but when done well can have a tremendous impact.
Line two, Joss Wheden's The Avengers, drops the reader right into the thick of things. It evokes questions, what is the Tesseract? Who is speaking? It also evokes a sense of smallness as a human since it it clear that the line is delivered by something that perceives the human world—our world—as small. Last I check several billion people and millions of uncharted miles of land and ocean wasn't something any of us would consider small, so when the line "a little world" is spoken there is a sense of something huge coming this way.
Last, is Charles Dickens's David Copperfield. Opening the scene with a philosophical view can lock in readers who love mind games. One thing that Charles Dickens does incredibly well is present it in a way that isn't overwhelming. It evokes thought from the reader, and desire to know who the hero of the speaker's life will be.
2) Info dumping
A lot of writers get excited about telling everything right away. Heck, I did the same thing! Think of this first paragraph as an introduction at a party. If you vomit your life story to someone without giving them a chance to breathe, they'll be backing away nervously in seconds. Take a breath! It's okay! You have time to say what you want to say. Introduce your character, but avoid introducing too much of your character. Take a look at this example:
"Sally crossed her tan legs over each other. She'd spent all summer perfecting her tan for tonight. The night she'd convince Johnny to fall madly in love with all 5'5" of her curvy body and bleach blonde hair. She'd loved him since she was 17, but he hardly noticed her. That would change. Sally blinked her blue eyes, feeling the weight of her false lashes wave through the air. Opening the compact mirror she kept in her purse at all times, she analyzed her straight nose, teeth perfected by braces years ago, lips plumped with injections and slathered with red lipstick. She smoothed the dress she'd lost 30 lbs to fit into over her figure and stood up."
Sure, some descriptions are nice, but all at once it's too much. Character descriptions should be weaved into the story at appropriate times. Consider what is happening in the scene. Is your character small? Have them tip toe to reach things. Paranoid? Shoot a glance at the suspicious soccer mom who walked into the coffee shop, then continue with their business.
One thing to try is write the opening scene WITHOUT ANY character descriptions, then go back and read it. Places that feel natural to include you brooding male running a large hand through his dark curly hair go for it. Places where it feels natural to include the fact that your slender female can shimmy between buildings, go for it! Places where your blonde panics because someone spilt red cool-aid on her hair go for it!
3) Starting in the wrong time
In my example, I started WAY early. The story didn't start until at least a full page in, and that is a problem. So how do you decide where is the right place to start? Think about your story. Where do things actually start? Was there a huge war critical to the current plot? Start there. But Rebekah, that means I have to write an entire book before this story! Yes, yes it does. If you spend a lot of time having to give flashbacks and backstory in your current WIP, then your story actually started back then. Well, what about prologues? There's the kicker! If you can't afford your reader not knowing the information it has to show up in the story. People don't always read prologues, and you have to assume your reader didn't read it. Either condense the back story or give it its own book to flourish in.
4) Screw the rules!
Seriously? All that information just to say "eh, what the heck. Just do whatever." Yes, sir/ma'am! At the end of the day anything that keeps your from starting your WIP is an enemy, so if the rules are a hang up don't follow them the first time around. You've read the first draft of my opener, and now you know everything wrong with it (well, maybe not everything, but the bulk of its problems). But it was a start. From that mess I could pull a few nuggets of gold and kept refining it until it reached a level I never would have expected. Do whatever it takes to get the ball rolling. Don't be afraid of writing trash! You can rewrite trash, but you can't rewrite a blank page.
The current opening paragraph for Defenders of Radiance: The Ajoiner Realm
"Warren stood on the battle-scarred streets of Fortitude, wiping blood from his sword. He stared at the blade in his hand, the pommel no longer glimmered, the leather grip worn and stained, the blade scratched by war. How many more years would he spend like this? He had little time to rest before a shriek echoed a few streets away. His eyes flicked open, and his thick muscles coiled. The western district again."
Carroll, Defenders of Radiance: The Ajoiner Realm (2020)