Critique: 10 Ways to Write a Better First Chapter Using Specific Word Choices

The one thing all writers are trying to do is write a better first chapter. First chapters are do-or-die territory. We know this as writers because we know this as readers. Most of us make our reading choices after scanning the first few paragraphs of a story. Sometimes we know if we want to go on after as little as a few sentences.

As writers who have put hundreds, even thousands of hours into writing the entirety of a book, we often feel this swift judgment is a little unfair. After all, first impressions aren’t always right. Several of my all-time favorite books weren’t ones that grabbed me off the bat; it was only my compulsive perseverance that allowed me to open up these stories’ true gifts. But 75-90% of the time, readers are going to make the correct decision about a book after reading just the first chapter or so.

Why is this? How can readers make an accurate decision about a book with so little information? What little signals are writers giving readers that let them quickly make up their minds?

Ultimately, what readers are looking for are signs that the writer has skill enough to be trusted with their time. Readers can’t know from the first chapter whether or not the writer can spin a good yarn all the way to a satisfying conclusion. But readers will always recognize whether or not the writer knows how to write. A skillful writer can hook readers through prose alone. The reader thinks, Ahh, this is good—and suddenly that all-important trust in the writer’s skills begins to percolate.

Learning From Each Other: WIP Excerpt Analysis

Today’s post is the sixth in an ongoing series in which I am analyzing the excerpts you have shared with me. My approach to these critiques is a little different from those you normally see on writing blogs. Instead of editing each piece, I’m focusing on one particular lesson that can be drawn from each excerpt, so we can deep-dive into the logic and process of various useful techniques.

Today, my thanks to Dawna J. Wightman for sharing from her dark fantasy FARR. Her excerpt immediately hooked me. If I were scanning this book on Amazon, I would want to read on. That’s why I want to break down what, specifically (and that’s the key word), grabbed me and made me believe she is an author I can trust to tell me a ripping good tale.

Let’s take a look! The bolded entries and subscript numbers will correspond with the tips I’ll talk about in subsequent sections.

Before the bad thing happened,1 we were just us five Raessen kids running around the farm.2 Sure, we took sides: the Peter Liam Bob team against me and Shone. Odin wasn’t born yet. When everybody was getting along we’d play chase or tag or hide-and-seek, but just me and Shone, just the two of us, was the best. Queen Shone and Queener Campanula.3 We’d spin bits of fleece from the farmer’s sheep, play dress up and pretend we were trying to escape the evil fairy king by reading messages written in blood across egg yolks that we tossed back in triumph.4 When it was just me and Shone, we always won. Me and Shone were closer than quarter to nine.5

Us kids fished in the creek and it didn’t matter that nobody knew how to swim. The nearest farm was miles away, so it was just us to hang around with—us and Ma and Dad in the rented farm house. Cozy.6

They danced sometimes before he went off to work, and we all laughed because he didn’t have far to go. The new strip mall was digging in at the back of our property. Dad worked construction. We even ate at restaurants sometimes and my favorite was Miss Chinatown. Ming May, the owner, even gave me a free egg roll once.

But then the bad thing happened; Shone went missing.7 One minute she’d been sitting next to Crinkle Creek, plucking daisy petals, next minute I came back with our poles, she was gone. White petals on black water.8

Her body was never found. I hate the sound of that, “her body”—she was so much more than “her body”—she was a person, a girl, a bright light with skin on it and taming my fuzzy braids with rubber bands and boy secrets under her blankets and letting me borrow her clothes and saving the best cupcake for me because she was my sister.9

After Shone, our family cracked. Ma started with those red pills and her sweeping ceilings all the time and she snipped off every button from every coat.10 The house was always too noisy… the sad making it quiet, all of us always moving and making a mess. My head felt like it was going to explode.

10 Ways You Can Write a Better First Chapter

First chapters are notoriously complex in the multiple jobs they must execute seamlessly—introducing characters, settings, and conflict all in a way that seduces readers deep into the dream world you wish to share.

>>Click here to read The Ultimate First Chapter Checklist

A good story is created from the combination of so many important factors. As we talk about so often on this site, solid story structure, character arcs, and themes are a huge part of what makes a story work. If any of these things are broken, readers are unlikely to find deep satisfaction by the time they finish your story. But it won’t matter how great your execution of story theory may be if you can’t first hook readers with your first chapter. You’ve got to convince them to read the doggone thing first.

To that end, let’s break down how Dawna convinced me.

1. Hook Readers With a Specific Question

First, you gotta land that right hook. There are many ways to do this, some flashier than others, but the common factor in all hooks is that they pique readers’ curiosity. In essence, a hook is a question—either explicit or implicit. A hook is an indication that something is, or shortly will be, off-kilter in the story world. Something doesn’t quite make sense. There is a mystery afoot. Even before readers meet the protagonist and make that all-important bond of empathy, they can be hooked with the promise that something is amiss.

Dawna does this seamlessly with her opening line promising a “bad thing” will happen. This is not an uncommon approach, but the technique is subtly strengthened here by opening not with “a bad thing happened,” but with “before the bad thing happened.” It’s a little different from what we normally see, it allows the story background to be sketched in (giving us characters to care about before we get to the punchline), and it immediately raises dramatic tension.

2. Hook Readers With a Specific Character Voice

For me, the single biggest test for whether or not I’ll read on is the story’s voice. I want a story that sounds either interesting and/or beautiful. I don’t want a story that sounds like an automaton (an effect often symptomatic of too much telling) or like every other story I may have already browsed today.

Voice is one of the most crucial, but also often one of the most elusive elements of story. A solid voice is a composite emergent of multiple factors—all of which come down to word choice and point to authorial competence. Dawna shows competence with her narrator’s voice throughout the excerpt, something she signals from the very first line with the grammatically idiosyncratic “just us five Raessen kids.”

Note that it’s not enough to give your narrator idiosyncratic or slangy grammar. The more unique the syntax, the more convincing the entire weft of the text must be in order to convince readers it is authentic and not just an authorial affectation.

3. Hook Readers With Specific Names and Language

Every word choice offers you an opportunity to breathe life into your story. Make your word choices as specific as possible. Don’t say the kids played “games” when you can specify they played “chase or tag or hide-and-seek.”

Perhaps more overlooked is the opportunity your character names have to bring your story to life. The first tip is to name your characters, as early as possible, within the narrative. The second tip is to choose names that say something.

The sisters in this story could have been named Sarah and Anne; nobody would have thought twice about it. But how much more interesting are these characters because their names are Shone and Campanula? (Not to mention the delightful childishness of one sister outdoing the other by choosing the title “Queener.”)

4. Hook Readers With Specific But Subtle Symbolism and Foreshadowing

This early in the first chapter, readers are still trying to figure out what the story is about. Inserting subtle symbolism can work to both characterize the opening scene and hint at what will come.

Knowing Dawna’s story is dark fantasy adds portentous overtones to the children’s game of escaping “the evil fairy king by reading messages written in blood across egg yolks.” Whether this game is directly related to the subsequent conflict or not, it sets the stage for dark magic to come, and it does so in a way that is so pertinent to the introduction that the symbolism alone acts as foreshadowing—without drawing undue attention to itself. In the busyness of a first chapter, this kind of subtlety goes a long way.

5. Hook Readers With Specific Prose Techniques

When examining a first chapter to determine whether or not an author knows her stuff, the wordcraft itself is always one of the greatest indicators. There are many techniques that contribute to a solid prose style—everything from description, to word tricks like alliteration, to proper rhythm from sentence to sentence.

Dawna shows solid wordcraft throughout this excerpt. One particularly nice example that pulled me in deeper with the rhythmic promise inherent in good writing is the subtle repetition of names throughout the first paragraph:

…the Peter Liam Bob team against me and Shone. Odin wasn’t born yet. When everybody was getting along we’d play chase or tag or hide-and-seek, but just me and Shone, just the two of us, was the best. Queen Shone and Queener Campanula. We’d spin bits of fleece from the farmer’s sheep, play dress up and pretend we were trying to escape the evil fairy king by reading messages written in blood across egg yolks that we tossed back in triumph. When it was just me and Shone, we always won. Me and Shone were closer than quarter to nine.

This kind of repetition doesn’t always work, but when it does it creates a poetic  solidity readers can lean into.

6. Hook Readers With Specific Setting Details

Setting is an important character in its own right—especially in the first chapter. As a reader, I want to be given details that help me see the story. I don’t want to be visualizing characters running around in a void. But this is tricky. Too often, writers info dump settings that—however beautifully written or sharply detailed—distract from the momentum of the hook.

The key to grounding setting in the beginning is to choose a few specific details that can be evoked seamlessly from the story’s existent action. Dawna does this throughout the excerpt in many subtle ways (starting with the narrator’s country accent, which hints at where she’s from). She waits until the second paragraph to offer a swift but specific setting description, then moves on.

7. Hook Readers With Specific Follow-Up Hooks

The hook question that opens your story may remain unanswered until the very end of the story. But it may also be answered or partially answered just a few paragraphs later. In either case, the initial hook won’t be able to sustain reader interest indefinitely. It will need to be followed up by many more small hook questions throughout the entire story.

Here, Dawna doesn’t stretch readers’ patience past the fourth paragraph before both answering the initial question—and then deepening the mystery. We find out that the “bad thing” teased in the first line is the narrator’s beloved sister going missing. But the mystery around her disappearance only raises more questions—as well as signaling to readers what this story’s conflict will likely be about.

8. Hook Readers With Specific Descriptive Details

There are whole books that are entrancing not so much for their tight plots or deep characters, but for their beautiful prose. Appropriate beautiful prose never goes amiss is upping your story’s value. But the word choices, timing, and frequency must be apt for your specific story.

When Dawna ended the paragraph about Shone’s disappearance with the quietly and darkly beautiful phrase “white petals on black water,” she really grabbed me. Interesting characters—check. Mysterious hook—check. Appropriately beautiful word choices—check.

9. Hook Readers With Specific Characterization

One of the most difficult challenges for any first chapter is evoking a character readers can care about, but doing it quickly enough that it doesn’t slow down the momentum or feel like an info dump.

Dawna does this beautifully in characterizing a character who isn’t even present onstage—the missing Shone. In less than a sentence, she creates in readers an ache of the tragedy the narrator feels over her lost sister. She does this entirely through specific word choices such as describing Shone as a “bright light with skin on it.”

10. Hook Readers With Specific Showing Details

Specificity is the essence of proper showing (versus the inevitable generality of telling). Dawna could easily have explained the aftermath of Shone’s disappearance by saying her mother “went crazy.” Instead, she shows readers what happened by describing the mother’s specific actions. (This is in contrast with what is, in my opinion, one of the weaker phrases in the excerpt, when the narrator tells readers “my head felt like it was going to explode.”)

***

Learning how to choose the most specific and appropriate words for your story can make all the difference in helping you write a better first chapter. My thanks to Dawna for sharing her wonderful excerpt, and my best wishes for her story’s success. Stay tuned for more analysis posts in the future!

You can find previous excerpt analyses linked below:

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What is your biggest challenge right now in figuring out how to write a better first chapter? Tell me in the comments!

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Dennis Michael Montgomery says

    I thought at first when you read Donna’s exert that it was a murder mystery not a fantasy.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, she explains that it’s fantasy, which is info readers are likely to be privy to when browsing book covers and descriptions.

    • The other clue that it’s fantasy is the reference to the fairy king, and the haruspices via the blood and yolk. Studying entrails for divination is not something people do in our age, but in ancient times? Yep. I’d tweak it so the sequence of events in tossing and blooding are clearer, but the whole line definitely primes you that the story is fantasy. I actually skipped the intro where KM said it was a fantasy, and I still got it.

      This opening drew me in. I started thinking of Hades and Persephone when she got to the part about the water and flowers. I suppose if Demeter were a mortal woman, her grief could be classed as insanity, too, like the mother in this story. “Fairy king” in this context is particularly ominous…

      Good work!

  2. Dennis Michael Montgomery says

    With all that work how can you enjoy writing?

    Your tips are very good, but to be honest I like writing, but what you’re outlining sounds intimidating. I think I prefer being a pantser

    • Eric Troyer says

      Ha! And I find outlining so intriguing I often have a hard time getting around to actually writing! But it’s writing, not science. In the end, if the story connects with readers it doesn’t really matter how you got there.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The most important thing is finding the right balance and process for you.

    • You might end up outlining *after* you get into the story, if you find you have to keep track of multiple story threads. The more complex the plot, the more you want to give yourself a guide. In a mystery you may want to keep track of clues and red herrings. You may want to note where you put Chekov’s gun, and where you fire it, and if you fired it too soon or failed to fire it at all, etc. Raymond Chandler famously forgot who killed a particular character; an outline could have helped him there 🙂

      Some people track that stuff ahead of time with outlines, but then find as they write that they have to change the *plan*. Others write and then outline, and find they may have to change what’s already written. The point is, neither the outline nor the writing should be treated as shackles, just do what’s best for the story.

  3. I can see why this would be a story to hook anyone from the get-go. Your break-down of the important elements is, as always, very insightful. The ever evasive elements are those unique turns of phrase that the author has used – ‘… we were as close as the hands of a clock at quarter to nine,’ for instance. These metaphors and similes are hard to manufacture. All credit to the author.

  4. M. L. Bull says

    Sometimes I struggle with getting the right first line to hook a reader, but once I find it, I’m usually well on my way.

  5. Eric Troyer says

    Thanks Katie…and Dawna. Great insights into an intriguing opening.

  6. Excellent story. It hooked me too.
    Also, excellent teaching, K.

  7. John Hansen says

    Well said and well presented. I wish I had submitted an opening paragraph for one of the books in my series. Anyway, one of my favorite opening paragraphs of all time, and a powerful hook to keep reading is Jack London’s classic, “Call of the Wild.” Here’s the first sentence: “Buck did not read the newspapers, or he would have known that trouble was brewing not alone for himself, but for every tide-water dog, strong of muscle and with warm, long hair, from Puget Sound to San Diego.”

  8. I’m a bit surprised that for tip five you didn’t mention “Me and Shone were closer than quarter to nine.” I had never heard that analogy before and that’s what made the whole paragraph pop. There are dozens of analogies that typically follow “closer than,” so choosing to take a familiar phrase and give it an original twist hooked me, because it promises that this writer has creativity and a way with words. Not to say I wasn’t hooked before.

    While I’m at it, thank you for this series, Katie! It has been really helpful to be able to go through excerpts of writing and see specifically what technique was used where. Are you, or planning to, accept more excerpts for future critiques?

    Thank you, Dawna, for sharing your work. I wish you writing success.

  9. What an awesome post! I’ve read many of your post which have all been very enlightening. This particular one is just what I need for a shelved middle grade that I’ve been working on. Thanks so much for sharing this!

  10. Oh my goodness, that piece was beautiful. 😭😭😭

  11. Posts like this are very helpful. I remember back when I was taking piano lessons: I would practice a beautiful classical piece and the next day I would be delighted when snatches of it showed up in my improvisation. I think that is the power of exposing oneself to things that work beautifully.

    Of course, in the end it will be our personality that shines through. Yet there will be unique snatches of those wonderful books that we have read. I like that. We are changed and blessed by those around us, but ultimately it is our uniqueness that sells our story. Neil Gaiman says as much, in one of my favorite writing quotes:

    “As quickly as you can, start telling the stories that only you can tell. Because there will always be better writers than you and there will always be smarter writers than you … but you are the only you.”

    You are a blessing Katie. =)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      In studying others, we are looking for glimpses of how they portray truth. Those are the bits that always resonate. When we can hear truth in someone else’s writing, it tunes our ear for hearing it in our own writing as well.

  12. Great opening. The voice is vivid and the hook(s) inescapable. One bit I really liked is “Odin wasn’t born yet,” such a gentle tease. I love these excerpt critiques. Thanks so much for the breakdown!

  13. I love this! When is it coming out? The question of hooks and questions and answers leaving more questions might be one of the more valuable things, as well as the repeated phrase. I’m sure readers are going to miss the ‘me and Shone’ for the entire rest of the book – especially if Shone’s death remains a big thing. (Or, maybe she WASN’T killed. Maybe death was framed, and she was really kidnapped!) Also now I’m sad she’s dead. She sounds like an awesome sister.

    But amazing post, as always! Can’t wait to read more!

    ~~Tiffany Smith

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      “I’m sure readers are going to miss the ‘me and Shone’ for the entire rest of the book…”

      This is so accurate!

  14. Great post! Looking forward to reading the whole book now! My current project originally opened with ‘You aren’t supposed to remember the moment that you die.’ But in tweaking the outline significantly it no longer works. I’ve been struggling with the new beginning and this will help immensely.

  15. Pablo Castelo says

    I am one of those who make guidelines, develop themes, character patterns and intertwine them throughout the novel before I write the first page. Nevertheless, after reading this article, I decided to give it a try and initiate the first page taking by assault the reader’s feelings. I write in Spanish. I hope my translation is good enough. I hope you like it.

    Philip, son of Philip the Good One, remained staring at the ground after saying everything that had petrified to his mother’s maidens. At the same time, he felt as much that his mother deserved it as he shouldn’t have said it. However, there was in his harsh words some sort of justice, or revenge, which weighed more, endorsed what was said and dignified the silence throughout the bedroom.
    “Do you accuse me of being cruel? ” He had answered his mother. “Cruelty was cleaning my own vomit with my hair in the middle of the night when I was a sick child. Cruelty was leaving me without gifts at Christmas when my father was gone. Cruelty was breaking my clay toys with a broom. Cruelty was jumping on the lute that my father left me until it turned into splinters. Cruelty was to simulate, as many times as you could, to send away George with strangers until you see him scream in terror. Cruelty was to destroy the small pond that George had built and kill his fish. Cruelty…”
    Felipe paused and sighed.
    His mother, opening exaggeratedly her eyes, asked:
    “Me? I have never done that!”
    The maidens, livid, looked at the carpet begging to be invisible so that the rage of neither of them could detect them.
    “If I were you, mother,” Philip continued, “I would not use the word cruelty until the end of my days, which in your case are not so many.”

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Definitely grabs me. One thing I would suggest would be to create a sense of of momentum in the scene by hinting a little earlier at the character’s motive or goal for what comes next.

  16. Off-topic. Is it possible to find beta readers in Russian? I write srceenplays.

  17. This is very helpful. I have a rather wishy-washy MC. The only thing going for the first chapter was the setting. Hopefully, your tips have helped me spruce it up a bit.

  18. Mary george says

    Hindsight.
    To a writer, it should be a beautiful thing.
    I’d like to thank you, Kate, for assessing this excerpt with the eye of a skilled craftswoman. A checklist like this is invaluable to writers who mean business with their drafts, and every revision offers potential to execute the right words in telling the story.
    But.
    Much of what you cite comes from one thing: reading. Call it what you want. To mimic. Emulate. Carry the torch.
    Every writer worth his or her weight must have a hundred books under their belt to carry on the tradition of a good read. One of the best ways to learn the craft of writing is, in fact, to read. Write every day? No, thank you. Give me Joseph Mitchell or Thomas Wolfe or Kerouac and the hundreds of other voices of authors whose voices live on, and those stories will not only inspire, but teach as well. Non-fiction, too. Biographies. Profiles of the Hmong or the sentience of the octopus. Writers of non-fiction cannot rely on fantasy or poetic prose, yet they can weave such compelling and elegant stories and – who knows – some of those truisms just might extrapolate into wild fantasy.
    Getting back to hindsight: whether writing from an outline or winging it from a first or middle chapter, it simply does not matter. This checklist is a compass, a tool to use when revising. Thank you!

  19. Embla Miriam says

    K.M. – I highly value your blog and your books on story crafting, but for every post I read (here and elsewhere, on other writing blogs), I grow more intimidated… to the point where I don’t function as a writer anymore… I can’t keep from nitpicking at every single sentence, I hold up checklists and find my story always lacking in SOMETHING. Worse, I have grown so critical of myself I don’t trust my own judgment at all anymore.. At this pace it seems like I’ll never finish my novel, even though the story is mostly all there in my head. I used to be a fast writer; now I barely enjoy it anymore..
    Any advice?
    I’m even critical of my outline. 🙁

    • Same. At this point, I’ve given up on writing. No point to write if I’ll never write anything as good as the exerpt she read on the podcast.

      • Embla Miriam says

        Sorry to hear you’re going through the same thing, Julia.
        I really miss having fun with my imagination. 🙁 I see K.M. has written a post on nurturing one’s creativity… maybe we can work on it that way. But it seems a far call, for me at least, because I can’t purposely forget all the writing advice I have read.

  20. Thank you for the insight you’ve given us on first paragraphs. This is another one to keep.

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