The First Three Chapters

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I was on a writing forum recently and noticed a call for beta readers. Several people responded (saying that yes, they would be willing to read), and the author said something very interesting about their novel. I can’t remember verbatim, but it was something along the lines of: “Well, the first few chapters are kind of boring anyway. It doesn’t get good until the middle.”

*Throws computer through window. Cries real tears.*

As you can imagine, I was shocked. It was my assumption that everyone knew that the first three chapters are the launching pad to any novel, otherwise, agents wouldn’t request them…right?

So many important things happen during the first few chapters! We’re learning who the main character is, what issues are plaguing them, what kind of story we’re getting into, etc., all while building up to something so momentous that the character will never be the same again and will spend most of the novel (the middle) trying to restore order.

But what makes a good first few chapters? Well, I guess that’s subjective. What’s good for you might not be good for me, so just off the top of my head:

  1. An interesting main character. They don’t always need to be likable but if I’m going to spend 300 pages with somebody, they better at least be interesting. What makes a character interesting? Well, their perspective on life. The things that they do or say, the people they surround themselves with (the list can go on).
  2. Good narrative voice (not what is said, but how).
  3. The writer presents a real life problem for the main character that readers will care about. It doesn’t have to be life or death, but the main character should care enough about the problem so that the reader cares. And even better, the character should care enough about the problem to try and (actively) find a solution.
  4. A good supporting cast. Nothing like great secondary characters to make a story pop.
  5. This one’s personal, so if you don’t mind this one just skip it: for me, I hate it when a book starts off too fast. Like when there’s a dead body on the first page and I haven’t spent enough time with the characters to even care about who’s dead. Or, a story that starts off with a car chase, or so much action that I find it hard to ground myself in the story. My personal preference is for a slow build (but not so slow that we’re still moving at a snail’s pace halfway through the story) that leads to a heart pounding climax. Just my preference….

So that’s my two cents. What about others? What kinds of things do you like to see in the first few chapters of a novel? What turns you off?

And to writers: what methods do you employ when writing those first few chapters?

I’d love to hear your thoughts!




31 thoughts on “The First Three Chapters

  1. Pingback: Hook’em From the Get-go | Faith Simone

  2. Quanie,

    I know this will sound silly, but this post was actually emotional for me. I have made all the mistakes listed for the first few chapters. But I don’t think I’ve ever said “the first few chapters are boring…” (Cringe). This post reminded me of how much I’ve grown as a writer. Everything you mentioned for the first three chapters is gospel for building a good book. You nailed it! I think I immediately start yawing if someone is having a dream in the first chapter. Or, if they’re driving in a car, plane crash, sitting and thinking etc. But, then again, if you’re a talented writer, and you can make that dream or drive the most compelling ever, go for it.

    • Burnita,

      You are so right! I think that’s the take away from all the comments here: if you can break the rules and manage to do it successfully, then everyone will bow to your greatness. I think that we all have our issues that we struggle with (one of mine is under describing my characters, something that I plan to blog about soon), but the key is just to keep writing, getting good feedback, and striving to be better. And I have to say: I can’t wait to read your book!
      Quanie recently posted..The First Three ChaptersMy Profile

  3. Quanie! first, thanks so much for commenting on my broken branch falls blog tour at Tyrean’s!

    as for the first three chapters, i think it depends on the genre/story. i’m not keen on a shocker first chapter, yet i have one in my techno thriller. it’s like a michael crichton novel/movie, introducing the futuristic world and the crux of the problem right away. then the next three chapters introduce the main character, how he grudgingly gets involved in his distinct voice, how he becomes invested in solving the problem, plus the rest of the characters in his techno-crazy world…

    you’re so right that the beginning can make or break a novel, and should make the reader care for the mc and his problem! a hard task, but that’s what writers do – make tough look easy!
    tara tyler recently posted..Building Character and Release News! I’m ecstatic!My Profile

    • Hi Tara,

      You’re right: I guess some genres do call for certain conventions that readers have probably come to expect, so I guess it just depends. And it is definitely a hard task, making the reader care for the character! Thanks so much for stopping by and good luck with your book!
      Quanie recently posted..The First Three ChaptersMy Profile

  4. Yeah, pretty much all of this. ^_^ Books need to start off with interesting characters and things happening and clear consequences, otherwise there’s no reason to keep reading. And I definitely agree with you on the starting too fast thing. If the dead body is just a plot device, okay, start with it. If we’re meant to care about the body, we need to care about the person it was before.

    If you’re going to go against this, you have to be good enough to do it really well – I recently read a book with a prologue that was nothing but description of the scene, but the description drew me in so well, it was so enticing, that I had to know what was going to happen when things actually started happening. But it takes some serious skill to pull that off.
    Mason T. Matchak recently posted..The Relationship Talk.My Profile

    • You know what? I normally don’t read prologues but the prologue for one of my favorite novels, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, totally pulled me in. There are “rules”, but if writers can break them and manage to make a story work (and well), hats off to them.
      Quanie recently posted..The First Three ChaptersMy Profile

  5. I’m with you on all of these, including #5! I think a lot of writers get so worried about being boring in the first few chapters that they LEAP into the action, without giving us a chance to get to know anyone. If it’s a police procedural or a detective story, then that’s OK, but otherwise, please, ease me in a little! Even Hollywood lets you have up to 20 minutes to get to that inciting incident.
    Liz Blocker (@lizblocker) recently posted..The Ninth Circle of Writer’s HellMy Profile

    • Yes! Even Hollywood gives you time to settle in. You are SO right: I think that writers are worried about being boring so they throw all sorts of things into the pot. There are certain books where I can spot great writing at the beginning, and even though there’s not a lot of “action” going on , I trust the author enough to settle down with the book because I know I’ll be in good hands.
      Quanie recently posted..The First Three ChaptersMy Profile

  6. I think I’ve read that author’s novels. Hahahaha. My reading time is limited, so if a book doesn’t grab me in the first few pages, I’m not going past the first few pages, period. In fact, that first paragraph should pull you in, if possible. But sometimes the first paragraph intrigues you and you keep reading and it just gets better and better. It’s all about voice…and feeling as though you either relate to the character or want to know more about him/her.
    Stephanie Faris recently posted..Public Speaking…Terrifying, Yet ThrillingMy Profile

  7. I would never say the first three chapters are boring. They are essential to build the story. But I really like something to happen in the first three chapters. I guess I’m an impatient reader, because I hate waiting for the action, romance, suspense, etc to start. I like it right in the beginning and throughout the whole story, but with plenty of moments to breathe. I tend to write like, too, because I want to hook my readers.
    Chrys Fey recently posted..Passive Voice MisconceptionMy Profile

    • Hi Chrys, I think it’s great how we all have such different preferences when it comes to novels. I’m a bit more patient when it comes to novels because I like a slow build, but by the time I’m about 50 pages or so in I expect things to really pick up.
      Quanie recently posted..The First Three ChaptersMy Profile

  8. And Oh! i have to throw this one in… because there have been quite a few books that did take off just like the author points out. I’ll name two… Sister Souljah’s memoir No Disrespect, and LeFreak by Nile Rogers.

    On Souljah’s book, one day I just so happened to flip to the middle of the book, not wanting to give up on the story, when SHA-ZAMM! The book was good after-all. Went back to beginning and couldn’t put it down. Almost the same thing with Nile’s book. Only difference was I had to read the book, so I plowed through to reach a point where I “over” sold.

    Still, this is nothing an author should admit to, PRIOR to publishing his or her book.
    RYCJ recently posted..“Yeah, I Said It!”My Profile

  9. I definitely agree with you, Quanie. The first few chapters have to captivate me or else I’m just not interested. I’ve read several books which I agreed to do author reviews for where the first few chapters were super boring. Unfortunately, it sets the tone for the rest of the book for me and makes it harder for me to connect with the main character.
    In my current novel, I’ve done my best to do everything you have suggested=) My beginning still surprises me!
    Great post, my friend!
    Gina Stoneheart recently posted..For the Love of the Publishing GameMy Profile

    • That’s definitely a tough one! That’s one reason why I don’t accept book review requests (and I get LOTS of them!). If I like the premise of a book, I’ll check it out on my own. If I enjoy the book, I’d be happy to leave a review. And it sounds like your novel is a real page turner. Can’t wait to read it! 🙂
      Quanie recently posted..The First Three ChaptersMy Profile

    • I’m getting the feeling that we’ve all experienced a book that started out wonderful and then just collapsed. Maybe I should do a post on writing the middle of a novel. And I do agree with you about number 5: sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
      Quanie recently posted..The First Three ChaptersMy Profile

  10. Aw… I like this post. Laughed out loud about the dead body on the first page. So true, though I might be worse than you. If I read any combination of death words in a synopsis, I’ll pass on the book. And that’s got to be the next to the last thing an author would admit about his or her story. The last would be that the entire story is boring… though here’s another thing that gets next to me too… That’s those books that pop up front and fizz out for the remaining 299 pages.
    RYCJ recently posted..“Yeah, I Said It!”My Profile

    • One of the things I hate the most is when a novel starts with a bang and fizzles. Don’t waste my time! Seriously, I started reading a book recently that started off so great. Man! I suggested the book to a friend I was so confident the book would deliver. Well, the author switched POV so frequently, and the chapters were so short, I began to find the story distracting. I didn’t finish the book but my friend did. She told me that the ending was unsatisfying, rushed, and unbelievable. No, thanks!
      Quanie recently posted..The First Three ChaptersMy Profile

  11. LOL My first attempt at fiction was that way. (See ‘The Snobbish Rules of Fiction’ page on my blog.)

    One of my pet peeves is the infamous ‘info dump.’ I don’t mind information worked into a scene with action and dialogue (I’m like you–I don’t like the story to go too fast either. Orient me! Make me care!), but I hate when the author ‘tells’ me everything in a dry, boring way. I’ve put books down over it.

    Great post as always, Quanie. 🙂
    Melissa Maygrove recently posted..Blog Hop Challenge: Bella’s Point by Elizabeth SeckmanMy Profile

    • Hi Melissa,

      I just read your Snobbish Rules of Fiction and thought it was great (and helpful). It’s so hard for newbie writers (heck, it’s hard for all writers, but especially new ones), so I can certainly understand why some writing “rules” seem frustrating and unnecessary, especially if the story doesn’t get good until the middle, lol. I’m with you on the info dump. I read a book recently where the author dumped a lot of what I thought was unnecessary info into the story, but other than that, the novel worked as a whole. I guess if you can break the rules and it works, no one will complain.
      Quanie recently posted..The First Three ChaptersMy Profile

  12. Oh no they didn’t?! The first three chapters are boring anyway. Really? I did a face palm myself when I read that. But anyway, the first three chapters are important to me for all of the reasons you listed Quanie. I take it a step further, though, because I expect to be completedly engaged by the first page, if not the first paragraph of a novel. I can tell by the end of the first page whether I can settle in for a great ride, because I’m thinking, “This is going to be juicy.” Or I can tell if it’s going to be mediocre, at which point I may or may not continue reading.
    Faith Simone recently posted..Inspiration Is Everywhere!My Profile

    • “Oh no they didn’t?!” Oh, yes they did! LOL! I completely agree with you about the first page (that’s a whole nother post) but I’ve been tricked too many times by a stellar first page only to get deeper into the novel and realize that the author couldn’t sustain that momentum. So I’m very suspicious of something that starts off good. In fact, I started reading a book recently that started off great, and then I got to the middle and the book totally collapsed (but then again, maybe I’m just suspicious of everything in general…).
      Quanie recently posted..The First Three ChaptersMy Profile

  13. I agree completely! Something I keep in mind is that there should be no boring parts. If I’m editing a manuscript and find myself wanting to skip ahead, then those scenes need to be deleted or altered so that they’re more interesting.

    I love the look of your site, by the way! Very pretty.

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