5 Mistakes Writers Make at the Start of a Novel

It’s no big secret that if we want to hook readers from the first chapter, we actually have to write a first chapter that hooks readers. With TBR stacks getting taller and taller, and Netflix releasing a new bingeable show every twenty minutes, gone are the days when readers will graciously give new books 50, 25, or even 10 pages to get good. The first chapter (or even the first pages!) is sometimes all we get. 

To ensure your reader doesn’t put your story aside in favor of the next book in their stack, I’ve compiled a list of the top 5 mistakes I see writers make at the start of their novels. One of these things can mean the difference between a reader voraciously turning to chapter two or stamping your book with that dreaded DNF label. So let’s break them down. 

Starting in the Wrong Place

Where does your story actually start? Surprisingly, it might not be what you’ve written on page 1. In first drafts, it’s common for books to start in the wrong place because we’re still fiddling around with the details and discovering things about our plot, world, and characters. And often we plop our readers down in the middle of a kind of hum-drum day when nothing really happens. Not exactly riveting stuff. When choosing the right place to start your story, ask yourself “why is this day important to the character?” Maybe it’s the day of a big event, a big test, a big game, a big promotion. Maybe something is starting today or ending today or changing today. Maybe it’s the day of the Reaping! (Okay, don’t use that. I’m pretty sure it’s already been done.) By starting on an important day in the character’s life, you automatically show the reader what’s important to your character which is a fabulous way to create instant intrigue about that character. 

Too Much Focus on Voice and Not Enough on Plot

Don’t get me wrong. We all love a unique literary voice that sucks us in from the get-go and makes us scream, Yes! Now this is an interesting character! (Oftentimes aloud, in public.) But there’s a curse that comes along with being a writer with a strong voice. We tend to rely too heavily on it from the start and forget that there’s also supposed to be a plot going on. So, even if you start your novel with a pitch perfect “voice solo” (what I like to call those long paragraphs or pages of text that highlight a character’s voice but don’t necessarily move the plot forward), make sure you don’t neglect the other instruments in your storytelling symphony (like action and dialogue, i.e. the stuff that does move the plot forward.) Readers will only indulge our voice solos for so long, before they start itching for something to happen. 

Too Much Info Dumping 

It’s easy for us writers to want to give our readers a whole slew of information right from the start, particularly if we’re writing a story with a lot of world building or complex character backstories. After all, we spent a long time brainstorming all that information. We want to show it off! Not to mention, it’s kind of important to the plot. While that may be true, too much info dumping in the first chapter is a sure-fire way to turn off a reader. Readers need to be invested in the story and the characters before they’re willing (and excited!) to learn all there is to know about them. Which is why I like to do something I call “info sprinkling.” This is when you sprinkle in just enough information to be useful (and better yet, mysterious!) but not enough to bore the reader or weigh down the opening pages. Make them want to read more. Make them earn that info. Instead of giving it to them for free. Some of the best use of info sprinkling I’ve seen done is in Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo. All of the POV characters are carrying around some serious baggage from their past. And we get just slightest hints of it in the opening pages of each of their chapters. Just enough to intrigue us and make us want to keep reading to find out more. 

Not Enough Unknowns

In the same vein as sprinkling in information. Withholding information is also a great writerly trick to lure readers past the first chapter. Unfortunately too many writers are afraid to withhold information. They’re afraid that if they don’t give the reader everything they need to know right off the bat, the reader won’t be able to follow the story. 

Here’s the thing. Readers want to know stuff. And when we simply tell them what they want to know, we take away the fun of reading. Imagine you’re on a treasure hunt but instead of a cool map with cryptic clues and faded text, someone simply told you where the treasure was. You can’t even call it a treasure hunt anymore. It’s just a treasure go-to. If we start treating elements of our story like a treasure hunt, creating unknowns for the reader to hunt down through the pages of the novel, we’re sure to keep them reading. There’s no limit to what you can withhold from your reader in the very first chapter to keep them reading. Like, what happened to them to make them terrified of escalators, the identity of the person leaving secret love notes in their locker, why their best friend stopped speaking to them, what they keep in the locked box in their nightstand, why they want to avenge their father’s death so badly. And don’t forget these unknowns can be unknown to the character as well. You can withhold information from your reader and your narrator at the same time, creating two treasure hunts in one. 

Not Enough Stakes

But regardless of where we start the story, regardless of how much voice we use or don’t use, how much info we withhold or dump onto the page, none of that will matter if your story doesn’t matter. Meaning, it’ll all be for nothing if you don’t build in stakes from the start. 

Stakes are essentially what the hero has to win or gain from whatever is happening at that moment in the story. Which means, stakes can change depending on what moment of the story we’re in. 

And I’m not just talking about the kind of physical stakes you’d read about in a thriller (although those work too!) I’m talking about any type of stakes. Internal or external, physical or emotional. Even the best character-driven contemporary stories start out with some type of stakes. 

In The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon, the stakes for Natasha are clear from the start. Unless she can stop her family’s deportation, life as she knows it is over. In The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, the story opens up in a hotel room in Amsterdam after the narrator has done something so bad, it’s splashed all over the front page of the Dutch newspapers. What did he do? Well, we won’t know for a while. (There’s some stakes and information withholding for you!) 

But far too many novels start without any stakes, which makes it really hard for the reader to care about what happens next. And when a reader doesn’t care about what happens next, they’re not very likely to want to read about it. 

So, take a look at the first chapter of your current work in progress and ask yourself if it suffers from any of these very common ailments. If it does, perhaps that’s something to add to your list of revisions to make in the next draft. 

Until next time, happy writing! 

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