(Repost) I don't know about you, but I HATE bad first chapters. Here's how I would fix them!

#1
Just starting this off by saying, this isn't really a guide. More of a discussion. And of course, there is no correct way to write, if you feel comfortable with your chapter, who am I to judge?

So, the first chapter of your book is a really important key piece in the structure of your fiction, perhaps even the most important, in my opinion. If you want consistent readers, that first chapter (or prologues, but we won't discuss those for a reason I'll explain in a bit) has to be TIGHT. But what the fuck do I mean by TIGHT? Well, let me tell you what I mean.

I've read many books here on Royal Road with my time review swapping, and something I don't think a lot of people understand is that when I go to read your book, I have noooo idea anything in your world, your characters, your heroes and villains. And I don't give a fuck. I don't care if your protagonist ate cereal for breakfast this morning before heading to school.

The most important goal in that first chapter is to make sure that I do give a fuck about the characters, the world, and the plot going forward. And I don't mean by giving extensive exposition. The number one thing that makes me want to stop reading your book is when I get hit with something like this as your first sentence:

~~~
In the world of Halorion, an ancient place that has been around since the time of gods, a burst of color erupted into the sky, flooding the small minstrel town of Jahko in iridescent light. Gods and men's faces shimmered in the light as a while stallion of constalations leaped across the night sky.

Four saints gathered, each with hands in prayer. There was Haravo, the patron saint of grand exposure, he was blessed by the gods after fighting off a vampire in the Hundilin mountains. His poise strengthened by the will of his convictions. His face was nice, expressing some emotion.

Then Jaya, she was the saint of lights and the heavens, the gods called upon her when her heroic mother died and... I'm pretty sure you get the point here.
~~~

What the fuck did you learn about this world? Nothing? If I told you the main protagonist had to go to the Hundlilin mountains in the fifteenth chapter, would you remember that name, or would you have to come back here to learn of it? Nobody would do that. And yes, I intentionally mispelt Hundilin to see if you'd catch it. I bet you didn't.

You see, we don't need to know about this drug trip of a cosmic event or some godly shit or any of these four saints. If it's foreshadowing, great! But don't fucking put it in the first chapter.

You can have the best book ever, and foreshadow whatever you want, but if that first chapter isn't set up right, it'll suck. Imagine if Game of Thrones had a bad first chapter? You think people would have read it to find out it had an excellent narrative (I don't think so, but whatever is your cup of tea)? No. It would have flopped. Just imagine the first chapter explains like all the backstory in the world, that'd be boring!

And the thing about the backstory, I believe it's better kept to your chest. I feel the less backstory you share, the better. Unless you can do something AWESOME with it, like trick the readers, or pull a really cool scene or reveal, I'd say keep the mystery. That's where fan theories and lore nerds come in to make sense of the world and encourages thinking from the reader! Anyway, I'm getting ahead of myself. Basically, only share backstory if you can deliver a payoff that is worth sacrificing the ongoing mystery. Some mysteries are better unresolved.

So, I'm sure this is where you scrolled to to find out how to fix that first chapter! Here's three points your should focus on.

Point #1: Make sure we get filled in on your characters, QUICKLY!!!!
If you have a main protag, make sure we are hearing from whoever they are as early as possible. When I get into a book confused about who I am supposed to be following, it's not only confusing, it gives me less time to figure out why I should care about them. I like going into books optimistically, but I'm not the average reader either. They will not care about hardly anything, less caring than me.

Make sure I know what your character wears and show me how they act through their interactions in the first couple scenes. A great way to show us what they look like is to compare it to their personality. Say your character has red hair, and a feisty personality, but they enjoy the simple things in life. Instead of just saying that, you can make it interesting!

~~~
Johan swung open the door, glaring at Kibble with malintent. His bold, sharp red hair could have been on fire and it'd exude less energy.

"Did you fucking eat my cookies again, Kibble?!" he yelled, his mouth more agape than the lack of undershirt beneath his overcoat.

"Why do you care so much about your cookies?" Kibble replied, her brown hair sweating with guilt, it was already hot, but Johan's anger made her even more uncomfortable.

"W-w-who cares about that!? I saw you eating them!"
~~~

See how much information we got out while still telling the readers about the characters? It's entertaining to write and to read, now the readers know how Johan looks and acts, while fitting it into the flow of the scene. Basically, have an entertaining backdrop for character exposition. It doesn't need to be as dramatic as I made it, as long as your readers get clued in without falling asleep at your wall of text (please, don't make walls of text, that's an instant no from me)

And when I refer to the main protag being in the first chapter, that doesn't mean the prologue. Remember what I said about the prologue? There is a difference that many people don't seem to understand here between prologue and first chapter.

Basically, prologues are for stuff like recalling an event from the past THAT WILL BE PREVELANT WITHIN THE FIRST THREE CHAPTERS!!! Prologues can also serve to set up the story, get everything into place before beginning, but if you do this, make sure the MC is prevalent to these things. Since, in our example, the MC was nowhere to be seen for a good three sentences.

Point #2: The exposition.
Everyone is gonna bring this one up, it's a really tricky one to get around however. I would blame you if you had it, because it's integral to the plot. But let's help you shave some of it off.

Basically think about anything that won't further the story, especially in the short term. Delete it. Be sure to also deliver the tone of the book in the first chapter. Is it jokey, comedic? Include some funny jokes! Is it going to be about dissecting corpses? Dead things? Gore? Prepare the reader for that with some blood and death!

Make sure though that everything has some purpose. If a line doesn't have purpose, it only serves to up the word count (and please don't fucking do that in the first chapter). The chapter needs to be not too long, not too short, and have all the things you need, a short chapter (compared to what you plan to write) is recommended. I know that sounds vague, but we're talking about writing here, I can't really cover every genre here in one post, can I?

Point #3: Gods, Deities, and why you should never even touch on them at the start.

Obviously, this goes without saying, if your book focuses on Gods, go ahead, talk all you want about them. But I have no clue why you MUST include some confusing long rant about basically nothing at the start of your book.

Here, let me take an example from an unnamed book I recently re-read that talked about a godly event in the first chapter (no MC in sight) in the worst possible way. This is literally the first line in the book.

~~~
The light poured from the cosmic abyss onto the shattered planet. Two lone figures watched the pieces floating through space without a single care.

"The fact that we are together still matters, Rombus."

"No, I believe this is too far."

He fell over into the sea of grass, waiting for his planet to finally die.

"I didn't do this for you. We are gods, I did it for us."

--------------------------

Harold woke up in his bed, got dressed, put some cereal in his bowl, and poured his milk. He was worried. His wife had left him weeks prior and his son was still missing. His hair was grey and he had on a black nightgown adorned with gold embroidery. He huffed, his stress releasing from his gut.

~~~

Two things here. Firstly, Harold isn't the MC, his son is, and the gods never get talked about until past chapter TWENTY!!! The MC isn't here, and he doesn't show up until the end of the chapter. Basically saying, "Oh boy! Cliffhanger! I wonder what the MC is going to be like!?"

Secondly. This book is titled 'How to Become a Sorcerer', and I wrote it. Yep, that was my writing. It was from seven years ago, and I wrote quite a lot too! But I'm not sharing that here. Either way, it's safe to say this would have hooked a grand total of NOBODY.

Gods and deities serve as nothing but confusion, distraction, and something strewing the focus. The smart thing to do, if you must have them, is to save them until later, maybe a couple chapters, so the MC can develop, and interact with the world around them. I saw a great book today, Chronicles of a Blessed Adventurer, read it by the way, it's honestly got a really smart writer who's got potential, and got me hooked on chapter 1. In that book, he'd talked about existence of gods in the prologue (which set up the story and only touched on those points), but said almost nothing about them until later, when we got a chapter dedicated to a god that will be prevalent later.

The chapter was short, like really short, almost as if to apologize for cutting away from the gripping plot and cliffhanger in the previous chapter, but I found it really good, rapid fire introducing us to 3 or so characters in a memorable way, showing us who we should care about, and showing how they tie into the plot, before finishing and going right back to the MC's story. The events in that mini-chapter directly affected the plot going forward, noticably too, not just something in the background we don't see.

Anyway! This post is 10 times longer than I first intended!

To wrap up, I'll say if you wish to write a book, finish some chapters first, and then go back and see if that first chapter reflects those well, if it sets up well. 99% of the time, of course, it won't. But, this is so you don't get stuck on that first chapter trying to predict what will happen next to perfectly convey it. Just relax, writing is fun, and if you aren't enjoying it, you don't have to (well, writing fiction on Royal Road that is).

That first chapter is the most important one of your book, and if you don't do it well, your book will look shoddy in comparison. If there is anything to be stressed about, it's making sure the first thing your new readers see is AWESOME!!!

With that, if you wanna hear a good first chapter, I know one that has been highly acclaimed... mine.

But in seriousness, I think (and I've been told) my first chapter expresses all of the things I've stated here, so I believe that's a good place to look if you wanna see an amazing first chapter.

I want to help other people too, so, post your books down below and I'll have a look at those first chapters of yours! And if you have any thoughts, leave those too!


Hope all this jargon helped in some way!

Re: (Repost) I don't know about you, but I HATE bad first chapters. Here's how I would fix them!

#3
My first chapter has some grammar and formatting issues I probably should fix at some point in the future but I'm too busy writing new chapters at several times the pace of what I expected of myself, and I don't wanna lose momentum by stressing over every little thing.

In the end, the form aside, I think content-wise I did a pretty good job at worldbuilding in a non-boring way by describing the mc going through her daily life and ruminating on various things as she encounters them. I think this is a good way to do it, as the infodumps don't exist in vacuum that way, and push forward not only worldbuilding but also character development. 

Re: (Repost) I don't know about you, but I HATE bad first chapters. Here's how I would fix them!

#4
I said it on the original thread. I'll say it again. 

FUCK. EXPOSITIONS.

While, yes, people may need a feel of how the story goes and what world it's set in, I don't want to know why a demon lord is rising from the dead, why everyone is panicking, why half the world is destroyed and why a hero is being summoned. All these are information that can be slowly woven into the plot, not thrown straight at someone's face as a massive snowman sized snowball.

Re: (Repost) I don't know about you, but I HATE bad first chapters. Here's how I would fix them!

#6

1moreindakitchen Wrote: Some would even say that it's the very first paragraph or sentence that has to catch the reader's interest.


Exactly! There are very compelling themes that can catch someone's attention quite easily if you know what to include from your story in the first chapter, even in the first paragraph. I'm 100% sure any story or premise has something you can put in that first line to be compelling to at least 50% of readers to get their continued support.

I'm sure I could come up with a good example, but I'm too tired so I'll use my own book for example.

What is it like to be one of the greats? One of the amazing heroes in The Ultrahuman Force?

Well, lemme just tell you how it went for me!

I got ripped from my father’s arms the moment they discovered I had powers, along with my sister. We were a year apart, and only fourteen when it happened.

Literally off the first lines you get worldbuilding (without overdoing it), introduction to the quips and humoristic narration style of the MC, and a story premise that will be prevalent through every part of the book. The world is extremely big place, but instead of explaining it, I get straight to the most important points, and the most interesting ones (that's extremely necessary!!!), if you don't hit the reader with both of these and show what makes your book unique, they won't read it.

Speaking of that 50% margin, that's a writers wet dream. If 50% of the folks who read chapter 1 read up to chapter 12 or something, I'd say my book is a success. I'd probably be a chart topper too.

That to say, think about your characters, situations, and all that, and make up a first chapter that can be compelling and catch your attention with its themes. Make it thought provoking! 

Re: (Repost) I don't know about you, but I HATE bad first chapters. Here's how I would fix them!

#8
Very curious to know how you would fix my first chapter. I'm still convinced it's wrong conceptually; but every other alternative also feels wrong. Here's a previous thread I made about it:

https://www.royalroad.com/forums/thread/110331

Problem: I have to make the readers care about the six characters, yet simultaneously, show that they are going to be the antagonists of the story. Every instance I know of "make, care, characters" beginnings, it always frames said characters as good people. You make readers care about the villain ...maybe near the ending. But in my story, I'm kind of stuck in a catch-22. I make them endearing, they look like they're going to be the protagonists. 

How do I introduce my characters endearing, while foreshadowing each will do something catastrophic in the future? Is it possible? Is it impossible? Is every hook you can make from this kind of story going to be bad by force?

Story link

Story direction (first three arcs)

Re: (Repost) I don't know about you, but I HATE bad first chapters. Here's how I would fix them!

#9
I'm a novice at writing novels normally I'm used to short stories that I don't even need to explain anything about the world that characters are in because the the story ends In 500 words however once I started writing my novel I still am clueless on world building I never done it I never needed it and to be honest even though I understand the world that my character is in and even the plot of the whole story. 
I'm flash fiction writer so I been finding it really hard to write a about my story because it can't end I. Just 500 words and the story itself is very massive and over whelming to me to the point that the first chapter was the only place I New how to throw everything onto the readers and so I could just dive into my very confusing long story that zigzag around the plot 


But yeah I understand that having so. Much information throw at you is a big turn off I just I guess it just depends on how skill you have in writing to pull it off...

And I for one haven't hit that skill at all   

DrakanLaugh

Re: (Repost) I don't know about you, but I HATE bad first chapters. Here's how I would fix them!

#10

Shaizic Wrote: I'm a novice at writing novels normally I'm used to short stories that I don't even need to explain anything about the world that characters are in because the the story ends In 500 words however once I started writing my novel I still am clueless on world building I never done it I never needed it and to be honest even though I understand the world that my character is in and even the plot of the whole story. 
I'm flash fiction writer so I been finding it really hard to write a about my story because it can't end I. Just 500 words and the story itself is very massive and over whelming to me to the point that the first chapter was the only place I New how to throw everything onto the readers and so I could just dive into my very confusing long story that zigzag around the plot 


But yeah I understand that having so. Much information throw at you is a big turn off I just I guess it just depends on how skill you have in writing to pull it off...

And I for one haven't hit that skill at all   

DrakanLaugh


While it does seem overwhelming, and I haven't even looked at your fiction, but perhaps try to come up with an end in mind. It helps it feel less overwhelming.

Re: (Repost) I don't know about you, but I HATE bad first chapters. Here's how I would fix them!

#11
The most exposition I have in my first chapter is just...

"Hey a gang controls this entire place.  Here's a cube that powers a fraction of the city.  Also strip club ettiqeute because thats where my protag meets his girlfriend."  

Overall I'd say I'm happy with my worldbuilding in my first chapter, and my prologue is literally only 500 words of just...

"This is what the tower looks like and the significance and danger of climbing it."  

Re: (Repost) I don't know about you, but I HATE bad first chapters. Here's how I would fix them!

#12

penove Wrote: In the world of Halorion, an ancient place that has been around since the time of gods, a burst of color erupted into the sky, flooding the small minstrel town of Jahko in iridescent light. Gods and men's faces shimmered in the light as a while stallion of constalations leaped across the night sky.

Four saints gathered, each with hands in prayer. There was Haravo, the patron saint of grand exposure, he was blessed by the gods after fighting off a vampire in the Hundilin mountains. His poise strengthened by the will of his convictions. His face was nice, expressing some emotion.

Then Jaya, she was the saint of lights and the heavens, the gods called upon her when her heroic mother died and... I'm pretty sure you get the point here.


It pains me so much when they open like this.

Re: (Repost) I don't know about you, but I HATE bad first chapters. Here's how I would fix them!

#13

JLCohen Wrote:
penove Wrote: In the world of Halorion, an ancient place that has been around since the time of gods, a burst of color erupted into the sky, flooding the small minstrel town of Jahko in iridescent light. Gods and men's faces shimmered in the light as a while stallion of constalations leaped across the night sky.

Four saints gathered, each with hands in prayer. There was Haravo, the patron saint of grand exposure, he was blessed by the gods after fighting off a vampire in the Hundilin mountains. His poise strengthened by the will of his convictions. His face was nice, expressing some emotion.

Then Jaya, she was the saint of lights and the heavens, the gods called upon her when her heroic mother died and... I'm pretty sure you get the point here.


It pains me so much when they open like this.

right? so awful. I have nothing against tell not show worldbuilding, but they should not start the book with mythology from the pov of an omnipresent narrator...at least make it an in-universe teacher giving a class to a bunch of children....

Re: (Repost) I don't know about you, but I HATE bad first chapters. Here's how I would fix them!

#14

Sake Wrote:
JLCohen Wrote:
penove Wrote: In the world of Halorion, an ancient place that has been around since the time of gods, a burst of color erupted into the sky, flooding the small minstrel town of Jahko in iridescent light. Gods and men's faces shimmered in the light as a while stallion of constalations leaped across the night sky.

Four saints gathered, each with hands in prayer. There was Haravo, the patron saint of grand exposure, he was blessed by the gods after fighting off a vampire in the Hundilin mountains. His poise strengthened by the will of his convictions. His face was nice, expressing some emotion.

Then Jaya, she was the saint of lights and the heavens, the gods called upon her when her heroic mother died and... I'm pretty sure you get the point here.


It pains me so much when they open like this.

right? so awful. I have nothing against tell not show worldbuilding, but they should not start the book with mythology from the pov of an omnipresent narrator...at least make it an in-universe teacher giving a class to a bunch of children....
That's exactly the same thing. Even worse in some ways, because you see what the author was going for, but that he tried to hide it behind a thin veil. It's still the same 100%-pure-exposition of (mostly) irrelevant information.

Re: (Repost) I don't know about you, but I HATE bad first chapters. Here's how I would fix them!

#15

Ararara Wrote:
Sake Wrote:
JLCohen Wrote:
penove Wrote: In the world of Halorion, an ancient place that has been around since the time of gods, a burst of color erupted into the sky, flooding the small minstrel town of Jahko in iridescent light. Gods and men's faces shimmered in the light as a while stallion of constalations leaped across the night sky.

Four saints gathered, each with hands in prayer. There was Haravo, the patron saint of grand exposure, he was blessed by the gods after fighting off a vampire in the Hundilin mountains. His poise strengthened by the will of his convictions. His face was nice, expressing some emotion.

Then Jaya, she was the saint of lights and the heavens, the gods called upon her when her heroic mother died and... I'm pretty sure you get the point here.


It pains me so much when they open like this.

right? so awful. I have nothing against tell not show worldbuilding, but they should not start the book with mythology from the pov of an omnipresent narrator...at least make it an in-universe teacher giving a class to a bunch of children....
That's exactly the same thing. Even worse in some ways, because you see what the author was going for, but that he tried to hide it behind a thin veil. It's still the same 100%-pure-exposition of (mostly) irrelevant information.

No, it's not. For example, if the mc is the student, the way they ask questions and their thoughts about the info that is being provided to them can already show some characterization. Also the teacher also might be some relevant character, and the institution of their school some plot relevant location/organization. 

Also, if the author does it like that, they can always pull a card "the teacher lied to them about something" or "the teacher withheld some information" or "was mistaken about something". And if the author can make the reader wonder these questions even before reveal, that's even better.

Re: (Repost) I don't know about you, but I HATE bad first chapters. Here's how I would fix them!

#16

Sake Wrote:
JLCohen Wrote:
penove Wrote: In the world of Halorion, an ancient place that has been around since the time of gods, a burst of color erupted into the sky, flooding the small minstrel town of Jahko in iridescent light. Gods and men's faces shimmered in the light as a while stallion of constalations leaped across the night sky.

Four saints gathered, each with hands in prayer. There was Haravo, the patron saint of grand exposure, he was blessed by the gods after fighting off a vampire in the Hundilin mountains. His poise strengthened by the will of his convictions. His face was nice, expressing some emotion.

Then Jaya, she was the saint of lights and the heavens, the gods called upon her when her heroic mother died and... I'm pretty sure you get the point here.


It pains me so much when they open like this.

right? so awful. I have nothing against tell not show worldbuilding, but they should not start the book with mythology from the pov of an omnipresent narrator...at least make it an in-universe teacher giving a class to a bunch of children....
Exactly! They have to give me something interesting to cling to.

For me, it's almost always an interesting character or a mean hook, an interesting situation.
Never, ever some vague mythos and worldbuilding.

Re: (Repost) I don't know about you, but I HATE bad first chapters. Here's how I would fix them!

#17

penove Wrote: With that, if you wanna hear a good first chapter, I know one that has been highly acclaimed... mine.

But in seriousness, I think (and I've been told) my first chapter expresses all of the things I've stated here, so I believe that's a good place to look if you wanna see an amazing first chapter.

Your lowest review at 2 stars was written by someone who read just your first chapter and dropped it after that. 
And I'm afraid I agree with its content, if I were to judge your book on the first chapter alone, I would also judge it harshly.

By trying to make it as click baity as possible, you overdosed on unfunny jokes and snarky delivery. Your first chapter didn't make me care about anything. It doesn't push the plot either beyond what we already knew in the synopsis. The mc is the underling, his old buddy arrives.  

But after that...your work improves. When you introduce other characters, when you move the story forward instead of trying to force a cheap laugh. 
I started remotely caring about any of your characters for the first time when perspective switched to Sal. And we were shown that things might not be as mc sees them, and that created some depth.

Depth can't be, however, created through clickbait. Depth is developed slowly over the course of dozens and hundreds of pages. 

If your first chapter, trying to be as clickbaity as possible, is vastly different from the rest of the work, then even people who got baited into reading it through it are going to feel confused and cheated later.

In your later chapters....there is still snark and protag making all kinda comments...alongside action moving forward at brisk pace. That action is the redeeming factor. Because even if jokes don't land(and you should assume they don't land rather than do, it's like having emergency plan B) then even people who find them unfunny will continue reading for the plot. 

Re: (Repost) I don't know about you, but I HATE bad first chapters. Here's how I would fix them!

#18
I feel like my first chapter has elements of this but it's hard to know what to change without throwing off the rest of the scene and the story. I feel like fixing it at this stage would require a rewrite so I'm just trying to keep moving forward - but I don't want to turn off readers as well if it's slow and info-dumpy. I will change it somewhat if I can without disrupting the story, I don't know. If someone wants to have a read, let me know what you think. I did do some editing since I got reviews, so maybe it's improved, but I'm skeptical of it :/ 

Re: (Repost) I don't know about you, but I HATE bad first chapters. Here's how I would fix them!

#19

penove Wrote: What is it like to be one of the greats? One of the amazing heroes in The Ultrahuman Force?

Well, lemme just tell you how it went for me!

I got ripped from my father’s arms the moment they discovered I had powers, along with my sister. We were a year apart, and only fourteen when it happened.

Yes, but this, in my opinion at least, still isn't eye-catching. Particularly the second sentence "Well, lemme just tell you how it went for me!" rubs me the wrong way. I get you want an irreverent style, but it can also come across as juvenile when overtuned so early on. And something about the tone doesn't seem very believable given the context. 

In my opinion, there doesn't have to be a set-in-stone criteria met for sticking with a book. Plenty of times I've picked something up and the opening paragraph was just describing the city, and that was enough. It all depends on how precise the writing is as opposed to how many boxes it ticks. 

Then again, it's different for everyone. But most certainly there is no "well this is what most people want" opening. I can name a lot of great books with slow openings that hooked me with the sheer writing quality. If the quality is lacking, then it's likely not going to inspire people to continue. This is especially the case for different genres. Space Opera typically has high exposition very early on, from my experience at least, and yet they are very enjoyable. :)

Re: (Repost) I don't know about you, but I HATE bad first chapters. Here's how I would fix them!

#20
As a reader, thanks for this Original Poster.  So many stories on this site have a terrible first chapter or two, and then things pick up good.  I've almost gotten used to it. :-\

That said, what really surprises me is occasionally I read a fan-fucking-tastic first chapter, and then the next nine chapters (I try very hard to read ten before reviewing or abandoning) are terrible.  Like, how did you the writer somehow flip on its head one of the hardest parts about writing? Always leaves me flabbergasted.