The Perfect First Chapter Syndrome

by Marg McAlister


The more advice you read about writing, the more you're likely to see statements like this: "The first chapter - especially the first page - is vitally important. This is where you hook the reader and create the tone for your story. Take whatever time is necessary to make your story opening as good as you can get it."

What you have just read is quite true. The first chapter IS vital. (Some editors don't even read past the first page before they make a YES/NO decision.) If you want to give yourself the best possible chance of publication (and winning loyal readers) then you DO need to make any reader - especially an editor - feel that they simply must keep reading to find out what happens. The problem is this: far too many writers spend hours polishing that first chapter, then fail to give the same attention to the other chapters in the book! This results in the 'perfect first chapter' syndrome. The book boasts ONE perfect chapter... but the rest are (mostly) mediocre.

Here's a common scenario: the editor receives a query letter and an accompanying first chapter plus synopsis. She begins to read. The first chapter hooks her attention: it's polished, the lead character is interesting, and the plot looks promising. She responds with: "We'd like to see the rest of your manuscript". At this stage, authors commonly react in one of four ways:

Writer A has finished the book and has edited/polished it carefully. She gives it one last read-through to iron out any last-minute wrinkles and sends the completed manuscript.
Writer B has finished the book but has not edited the rest of the manuscript to the same standard as the first chapter. He takes a few weeks to "do what he can" then, reluctant to delay any longer, sends it off, crossing his fingers.
Writer C has not finished the book, but (also eager not to let this chance slip away) writes furiously to complete the job and sends it in as soon as possible... which might be anything from weeks to months. She does a rush job on editing because she's taken too long with it already.
Writer D has written nothing more than the first chapter. She immediately starts writing the rest, but loses momentum about halfway... and never actually finishes it.

Of the above four approaches, only writer (a) is likely to receive an offer of publication. The bottom line is this: to do a good job of editing and polishing a novel, you need to give your manuscript TIME. More than that, you need to focus carefully on a small segment at each sitting. If you try to race through editing a manuscript in a week, you're going to do a sloppy job. It's all too easy to become tired and let things go - things that you would have picked up if it had been a smaller task.

Editors see many, many close-to-perfect first chapters. Only a tiny percentage of these are followed by further chapters that are just as good. In their eagerness to get their books in front of an editor, writers are sabotaging their own chances of success.

A Recommended Approach to Make Sure EVERY Chapter is "Perfect"

1. Make sure each chapter has an inciting incident.

(Why is the chapter in the book? Only because 'something' happened leading up to it. If there is nothing in previous chapters that leads to this one... then chop it out. It's likely that your story is episodic.)

2. Make sure your chapter has conflict.

Without conflict, there is no story. Keep in mind that conflict does not mean an out-and-out fight. Your character can be experiencing inner conflict (she is torn between two courses of action) or outer conflict (someone or something is challenging her).

3. Make sure the viewpoint character in each chapter has a goal.

She will want to achieve SOMETHING, even if it's something small. (Note: thwarting your character so she doesn't achieve her goal is a good way to keep readers interested... "what will she do now?")

4. Make sure that each chapter logically leads into the next.

At least one of the characters in the scene should be forced to take further action because of what has happened. (Make sure that it's something your readers care about if you want them to keep turning pages.)

5. Make sure the dialogue flows smoothly.

Top tip: read it out loud. You can't beat this for showing up any weaknesses. Check that you haven't overdone speech tags ("he said"; "Lauren added") or adverbs. Ensure that each speaker sounds like an individual, and that each new speaker gets a new paragraph.

6. Make sure that you are not guilty of 'info-dumping' in order to get information across to the reader quickly.

You MUST find a way to insert information unobtrusively into the narrative. If readers sense that you are lecturing them (so they 'see the author at work') they'll tune out. Take particular care that you don't force lumps of information into dialogue - that's a real killer!

7. Check your whole chapter for style.

Watch for unwanted 'echoes' (repetitive phrasing, too many sentences starting with the same word, repetitive patterns).

8. Check your entire chapter for errors in spelling, punctuation and grammar.

Keep an eye out for too many sentence fragments or run-on sentences. Make sure that you use commas, NOT full stops, before a speech tag. (e.g. Not this: "Give it to me." He ordered. But this: "Give it to me," he ordered.)

9. After you have been through your chapter and you're sure that you rate a pass on points 1-8 above, put your chapter aside for at least 24 hours.

(Don't move on to the next one yet.) Now go and do something entirely unrelated to writing... let your mind rest.

10. Give your chapter a final read-through.

You're likely to find that it needs smoothing out here and there. Editorial glitches creep in, no matter how careful you've been. Make the final changes... THEN move on to the next chapter, and do it all again.

© Marg McAlister


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