You may find yourself, a perspective novelist, dragging your forehead across the keyboard for your first chapter. And you’d be in good company as almost everyone has gone through this process. The first chapter is your chance to reel in your readers, but it’s also where you can lose them in under a page. When looking to stand out with your debut novel, many common beginnings may leave you lost amongst the other submissions. We want our openings to feel fresh and new, so best to avoid tropes that feel a bit too familiar.
1. The Dream Sequence
Many authors are attracted to the idea of beginning their novel with a dream in order to establish major themes that will appear in their work. Perhaps you felt your first chapter did not represent how the novel will move forward and thought a dream would be a good way to simulate the upcoming conflicts. Unfortunately, this is a cliché that leaves the reader feeling cheated after they invested in something that never happened. False starts such as this can cause the reader to distrust the author from the beginning. As an alternative, give the reader something to ground them in real conflict.
2. Waking Up
The start of a new day seems like a logical place to begin a story. However, given how logical it is, many have constructed their stories in the same way. You must assume literary agents and editors are reading hundreds of submissions, so anything they’ve read in bulk is going to lose its appeal. The key is to take a look at your work in progress and assess whether your character waking up is the plot or merely the circumstance. If it is the first case, it might be best to adjust for a more engaging opening.
3. The Mirror Description
In the first chapter, most authors like to work in the description of their protagonist’s physical appearance. However, if you’re writing in first-person perspective, this becomes more difficult as it feels unnatural for the protagonist to begin laundry listing their traits. Many authors then move to place their protagonist in front of a mirror to observe themselves. The problem is that this doesn’t quite solve the unnatural feeling from them describing themselves. A more varied method would be to incorporate the description into subtle actions. For example, having your protagonist card their fingers through their hair, this would allow you to briefly establish the texture and color if you’d like. Another method would be to have them compare themselves to a second character. A protagonist remarking that she and her mother share the same color of eyes feels more organic than placing them in front of a reflective surface.
4. The Superfluous Prologue
Prologues get a bad reputation among agents and editors yet continue to be published every year. The important thing to remember is that a prologue is no different than a first chapter in its goal; entice readers. Prologues fail when they are forced to do more than they should have to. If a prologue is added only to add lengthy backstory or establish a complex world, this will fatigue readers. Instead, prologues should offer necessary plot or greatly add to the enjoyment of the reading experience. Keep it punchy and impactful, so that the reader will feel the prologue was worth their investment.
5. The Chase Scene
In certain genre fiction, establishing immediate conflict is paramount. But just as with other cases, we need to avoid things that feel too familiar. One common example of this is a chase scene. It drops the reader right into immediacy, which is a good approach. However, the issue arises in the market of the novel. Genres such as thriller, science-fiction, and fantasy all feature this opening frequently. Certain scenes like this will be popular from time to time and cause publishers and agents to become exhausted by them. It is a good idea to look into your perspective genre to ensure your current work isn’t delving too far into a trending opening.
While this list may be comprised of widely held opinions, you shouldn’t take it as the absolute standard for your writing. If you feel you’ve treaded on one of these tropes, you may be a strong writer capable to pull it off with a unique spin. Even if not, the writing process is double in editing what it is in drafting. With a little bit of your own flair, you’ll be sure to make your work stand out amongst the slush pile.