If you’ve given your WIP to Betas (or honest friends) and the comments are: “The rest of your story kicks ass but the first chapter is kind of wonky.” Or “I couldn’t even get past chapter one.” Or “The first few paragraphs are too confusing and boring.”
What they might mean: Your main character is not making a good First Impression.
Have you ever been on a first date that just boded ill for a future relationship? Every portent pointed to the fact that it wouldn’t end well?
Let me offer some examples from my own previously sad love life.
A first date started with a guy who told me to meet him at the movie theater. He got dropped off by his mom half an hour late (he later revealed he’d lost his license for drunk driving) and made me pay for the tickets, drinks, a bucket of popcorn, and an arm load of candy. For him.
Another guy made me drive half an hour through a storm, pick up McDonalds for our dinner, and waited at the door of his apartment building – with a f*cking umbrella – while I scampered across the parking lot, trying to keep our dinner dry.
I didn’t start out trying to dislike these guys; in fact, I desperately wanted to like them. But their first impressions just didn’t allow a connection.
Bad first impressions from a Main Character are like that. A reader doesn’t expect to dislike or not connect with them, but the first chapter might not be portraying the Main Character in the most empathetic light.
Let’s put our Serious Pants on.
Here are the three common ways a Main Character makes a bad first impression:
1. Starting with a Dream Sequence.
This seems like a good idea. You can add some kind of prophecy or warning or foreshadow future stuff. It would totally build mystery. And you can pack it full of back story without it reading like an infodump.
It seems to work really well in movies.
Here’s why it usually works against you.
Dreams are strange, strange things. How often have you had a dream that made 100% perfect sense? Be honest. And be honest to your reader. But presenting a linear, realistic dream is already lying to the reader. Dreams are inherently confusing and the excitement of a dream in which a character is fleeing “some dark, mysterious entity” or “struggling to breathe” only to wake up gasping and realizing it was a dream is a big slap in the face.
It’s a promise that the story will be exciting and you’ve already broken that promise with a “Ha! Fooled you, sucker! It was just a dream.”
Then the pace severely slows down because you have to show the character waking up and being disoriented and trying to figure out what the dream was about.
It works in movies because movies have elements written stories don’t have: chilling music, visual effects, facial expressions and actors people are already familiar with.
This method can also work if it’s starting a story that’s embedded in a series because the reader would already be familiar with most elements of the story world.
2. The Second Bad Impression:
Perhaps you’ve decided against the Dream Sequence or they’re just not relevant. Do you have Main Character waking up in the first scene?
Seems like a good idea to show MC’s life before the instigating plot moment, right?
Here’s why it’s not so awesome.
Having your character “wake up” in the first scene implies a very passive character. Going along with the Dream Sequence, a Waking Character is literally just lying there. Dreams are happening to him. Or sleep is happening to him. Then he wakes up.
How many times would you start a journal entry with “Dear diary, This morning, I woke up.” Or hell, “Stardate 003.4.3013, This morning, I woke up. Then I took a piss. I showered and brushed my teeth.”
How interested would you be in a journal entry by someone you’ve never met that starts with “Dear journal, I opened my eyes to find morning was upon me. I got up, pushed the covers off, and inhaled the scent of frying eggs.”
It’s not a terribly bad beginning, but it’s been done before, and with each repetition it loses impact. It’s an easy, comfortable way to start a story and I strongly recommend against it unless the very act of waking up is integral to the plot/theme. Like, a Princess who wakes up from a thousand-years curse, fully aware that she’s waking up to a world very different from the one she fell asleep in. Or, a man waking up in a cat’s body. Or a plant-person waking up in the wrong field.
3. The Third Bad Impression:
A lengthy flashback within the first five pages.
Do you have a decent opening scene in which you hint at an instigating plot moment, then go deep into Main Character and emo it up with a flashback (a scene from the Character’s past, usually very meaningful to WHY the character left home, killed so-and-so, etc.)? You might think it’s a great way to give the reader some background information to gain empathy for the MC, but it’s actually an attempt to force a connection rather than letting the reader form one naturally.
It comes across as reader-manipulation.
Here’s why it doesn’t work the way you want it to.
You haven’t really introduced a Character in the present story timeline yet, so why would I care about the Character’s past? A flashback works best if it’s framed by context.
A sudden, early flashback is an info dump. Just like the Dream Sequence above, the flashback inserts a jumble of information way too early and implies that you, the writer, couldn’t work it into the plot just a few more pages in.
If you would fight a dozen lightning-infused Titans to defend the need for an early flashback, it indicates you might be starting your story a tad too late.
Otherwise, in stories I’ve Betaed, I’ve found that the flashback can be incorporated into profound and cathartic conflicts later in the story.
Now, if you’re like me, you’ll automatically buck and kick when someone says you can’t or shouldn’t do something. And if you follow me on Twitter (@joanwip) you’ll notice I sometimes use the hashtag #challengealltropes.
These three First Impressions have worked in the past for writers, so challenge what I’ve said above IF your story absolutely must begin that way. Those three beginnings can work if you use them with care and with deliberate, thoughtful motives.
But if you’ve used them to lure the reader in, rather than inviting the reader in, you’re using them as gimmicks, not as hooks. In other words, you’re purposely misleading and manipulating the reader. In starting a story, just like in starting a relationship, that’s not the best way to establish trust.
How was the protagonist introduced in your favorite story?
And this week (December 16-20, 2015), the book with my short stories is on sale for only $2.99! Half off! That works out to only 30¢ a story! Makes a great gift for fans who like Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, Literary, ghost stories, mini-mysteries, and Self-Rescuing Heroines. Also a great gift for commuters or anyone who enjoys short fiction.