The other day I got caught in a long wait without the new book I’d just started, so I pulled out my phone and started a book from my digital TBR pile. It was great! I liked the protagonist, a 20-year police veteran, now a PI, shattered from a tragic personal event, resisting the lure of paid clients. And then this dame walks through the door…
And I was off and running. I loved the PI, loved the dame, loved the premise. And then—on a stakeout, the PI leaves his gun on the passenger seat, his laptop on the back seat, his burglary tools and other equipment in an open bag on the floor…and doesn’t lock his car door.
Boom, just like that, I was done. What cop turned PI—anyone at all—wouldn’t lock their car with all that stuff visible? No one. Behavior like that is either a screaming Plot Device, or it foreshadows an investigator who’s too stupid to live. Either way, I didn’t read one more page.
Hooking the reader at the beginning of the story is difficult, but crucial for writers. My instant turnoff of this mystery reminded me of Nancy’s recent post, describing her many rewrites of her first chapter as she works to find the true starting point of her story. And Jenny Crusie, in a recent post of hers, wrote of her struggle to figure out who her hero is. A different character emerges with each draft, she says.
So—story, character, plot. You have to do it all, and you have to do it well, and you have to do it soon in your book, or the readers will just delete it and turn off their phones.
In my own case, my manuscript has been limping along. I go for a while thinking I’ve figured out what’s wrong with it, only to see 10 or 15 pages later that what I thought was right isn’t right after all. Now what I think is wrong is that my conflict isn’t sharp enough and isn’t embodied in one antagonist character clearly enough. And the stakes aren’t high enough for my protagonist, either.
Which means I have to go back to that beginning. See what I can do to sharpen everything so I can hope to hook that reader. At least by going back to the beginning, I’ll be in good company.
What about you? Does your first chapter work okay for you?