What to avoid when writing an opening chapter

The stories that stick with us through life are those that grab our attention from the off. If you were to think about your 5 favourite novels, there is no doubt you'd be able to remember the key events. More often than not, you'll also have a strong memory of how the book opened. Think about that for a second. What was it in that first chapter that compelled you to read on? I would be willing to bet that it didn't have a set-up anything like those I'm about to describe. If you are attempting to write your first novel (or even a short story), these are the pitfalls that can set you off on the wrong foot. They kill the narrative momentum dead and should normally be avoided.

1, Weak central conflict

"Idiot!" scowled Mary, vigorously shaking her head from side to side and fixing her glare on the mirror before her. Her haircut was a disaster.
"Is……well, is there something wrong Madam?" enquired Steven nervously.
"Why don't you people just learn to do what I ask of you? I specifically showed you a photo of Meg Ryan and I've ended up looking more like Ryan Giggs."

The central conflict here is laughably thin. The reader expects the drama of a novel to carry them through 400 pages; the conflict should be potentially life changing. A bad hair cut is not important or compelling enough to maintain the interest of the reader for long. That is not to say that your protagonist shouldn't have a bad haircut, but it should remain where it belongs; as part of the texture and background of the story.

On top of being important and engaging enough, the conflict should revolve around something of broader interest than a hair cut. Although you might still feel aggrieved that your hairdresser may as well have taken to your mop with shears instead of scissors, and performed the job with his eyes closed, writing is not an excuse to vent hidden frustrations.

Nor should your reason for writing be that your friends and family are so bored by hearing the story of that fateful trip to the salon that you need to tell the world! Annoyances with your fiancé for leaving a wet towel on the bed, your mother in law's obsession with your bushy eyebrows or the time you got into trouble for smoking behind the bike sheds (even though it was actually Stuart Morris who was the one smoking, but Mrs Hargreaves came round the corner, smelt smoke and bundled you in with him, before calling your mum who chastised you for being irresponsible); these are gripes not plots.

By all means, reference the incident behind the bike sheds, but do it as your protagonist is diagnosed with a horrific smoking-related disease, not as a stand-alone set piece.

2, Delaying tactics

On page one, your hero is driving a bus. We have long descriptive passages of what he sees, hears and smells. By page three he is picking out remnants of the bacon he had for breakfast from between his teeth. By page eight, he is reflecting on why he decided all those years ago to become a bus driver. On page fifteen, is a passage about the conversation he had with the school careers advisor 20 long years ago. When we hit page twenty-five (which, with this lack of immediate action will have seemed like a very arduous journey), he is remembering how his wife left him because he had no ambition.

The point is, in the above example, nothing actually happens in the here and now. There have been endless explanations relating to background information with no real plot in sight. By page twenty-five, the reader will be pondering why it is so important to know about the bus driver's relationship with his school careers advisor, why we need to know about the stream of passenger's getting on and off the bus or indeed what the sights and sounds of the local area hold in store. The truth is we don't need to know what the bus driver had for breakfast.

All of these details may be valuable assets to the texture of the story, but they should be woven in as something is actually happening in the present. It would be far more interesting if the bus driver is forced to drive at gun point by a terrorist and is faced with brief flashes of what has brought him to this point.

It is enlightening to consider that many writers end up scrapping the first twenty or so pages of what they write as an opening to their novel and replace it with a single paragraph.

3, Amateur Psychology

Chapter One
"Serena was a sprightly young girl, full of enthusiasm for life and an unquenchable taste to know everything and everyone. She ran, skipped and jumped through her childhood, never pausing for breath, never asking for help. That was, until her Father went away..."

Chapter Two
"Serena peeled the covers from her skin, before glancing over at the groggy figure lying beside her. Another one in a long line of mistakes. She knew his name was Stuart, but could recall little more than that…"

Presumably, writers like to offer insights into a character's childhood to provide reasons for the way they act in the main body of the story. It is not uncommon for novice authors to write an opening chapter in flashback as a set-up to the real plot. It is hardly ever necessary. We don't need to understand what happened to someone when they were 5, 10, or 15 to be interested in what is happening to them now.

A writer's job is to tell the story, not to offer a psychological study. It may be helpful (or indeed vital) for the writer to know a great many details about a character's background, but these are rarely of real interest to the reader. That is not to say that little memories shouldn't be dropped in and referred to. Indeed this can be a very useful technique, but choose this moments wisely and use them sparingly.

If you ask a plumber to unblock a sink, you do not expect them to tell you everything they know about the inner-workings of your plumbing system. Therefore, why on earth should a writer reveal everything they know about their protagonist.

My Favourite Novel

4, Location over Story

The criteria for a story set in Outer Mongolia are exactly the same as the criteria for a story set in Scunthorpe. While the setting might offer tit bits of insight, and description can be an effective device, what happens in that place is far more important and far more intriguing.

If a novel opens with a chapter dedicated to a long stretch of beach just outside Barcelona, but nothing actually takes place on the beach, you may as well write a travel guide. This is really an extension of the delaying tactics discussed above. It is merely delaying tactics with added scenery!

5, Failing to communicate

"The sound of the firing was indescribable. John had never thought what it would be like to be hit by a bullet and even now, as he crouched under the table, he couldn't imagine it actually happening. He couldn't put his finger on what he was feeling. Was it fear? Or sadness? Or even elation at still being alive? He didn't know."

This situation only exists in the author's imagination. It has failed to translate to the page. The images are vague and the words non-specific. Although there is potential for drama in the situation, this passage doesn't offer a concrete insight into how it is impacting upon the character. Avoid words like 'amazing', 'indescribable', 'unimaginable', and 'unbelievable'.

This type of writing is like trying to watch a film on TV whilst the dog sits in front of the set, obscuring your view.

6, Misleading your reader

Everything you write comes from a conscious choice and, because of this, the reader will assume that everything is of some importance to the plot (particularly if it is detailed and unusual). If you write a paragraph about a woman spraying furniture polish on her hair, the reader will automatically think that this will be revisited and explored further. If it isn't, it will remain an unsolved mystery, and leave the reader dissatisfied.

In novels, everyday things take on greater significance. If the telephone rings in your house, it is probably your mum calling for a catch-up, if it rings in your character's house, a stranger is on the end of the line asking them to meet them at a specific place and time; we will then expect this phone call to lead to the unravelling of a momentous chain of events. The message is, make the phone call count.

It is also true that the language you use to describe one person's point of view of another can be misleading and cause the reader to make assumptions about their relationship. If a boy sees a girl in the opening pages, and the narrator goes on to describe the girl as having a "curvaceous, seductive figure and a sensual smile" and the girl turns out to be the boy's sister, it may lead to confusion.

In conclusion...

There are numerous, engaging ways to open a novel and the above are merely guidelines of things to avoid. Of course every rule is made to be broken and some of these devices might well be used to great effect if used carefully. I also want to clarify that, although I use example of drama being about gunshots and cancer victims, I am not suggesting that the mundane aspects of life can't be just as intriguing. But it's the way they are written and woven into the plot that make them so.

It's also important to give your writing energy and forward momentum. Using the active voice over the passive voice is normally preferable to inject vitality into the opening of your story. If you're struggling for ideas check out this article: What Shall I Write a Story About? Or for more, pitfalls take a look at What to Avoid when Writing Characters.