March 9 – 15: “How do you avoid the first chapter pitfall?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5Do some writers tend to work too hard, too long on the first chapter and neglect the rest of the story? Join ITW members Jean Heller, Douglas Wynne, Douglas Seaver and Leonardo Wild as they discuss how to avoid that pitfall!


hellerMost of Jean Heller’s career was as an investigative and projects reporter and editor in New York City, Washington, D.C. and St. Petersburg Florida. Her career as a novelist began in the 1990s with the publication of the thrillers, “Maximum Impact” and “Handyman” by St. Martin’s Press. Then life intervened and postponed her new book, “The Someday File,” to publication in late 2014. Jean has won the Worth Bingham Prize, the Polk Award, and is an eight-time Pulitzer Prize nominee.


The Fourth Rule by Douglass SeaverDouglass Seaver is the author of the highly praised nonfiction book, Four Across the Atlantic, and the award winning short story, The Auction. His latest book is The Fourth Rule, an international suspense novel. He is a graduate of the two-year online Stanford Certificate Program in Creative writing. He and his wife, the painter Cheryl Seaver, live in Essex, CT.


Red Equinox by Douglas WynneDouglas Wynne is the author of two previous novels: THE DEVIL OF ECHO LAKE and STEEL BREEZE. He lives in Massachusetts with his wife and son and a houseful of animals just a stone’s throw from H.P. Lovecraft’s fictional town of Arkham.



cotoLeonardo Wild is a full-time writer in Ecuador. He is the author of more than 200 articles on various subjects for magazines both in Ecuador and Spain, and has published/produced both fiction, non-fiction, TV scripts, documentaries and done various translations, the latest: De-Mythifying Money (under contract with The Pachamama Alliance). As a scriptwriter, he has worked as a corporate image consultant, marketing consultant and translator for technical manuals for TOYOTA, Ecuador.


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  1. One of the things that made a big impression on me the year before I was first published was a book by a best-selling thriller writer that started out strong and had me captivated and seeing the blockbuster movie it could become in my head, but then quickly went south with nonsensical character motives and a plot I just couldn’t swallow. I never did finish reading that book, but I came away from it with a gift: the knowledge that it had been published and I was pretty sure I could do better than that.

    Aspiring writers quickly learn the importance of opening lines, paragraphs, and chapters. Obviously you need to hook readers in the bookstore, but first you need to hook agent’s and editors who often request a three chapter or 50 page partial. It’s easy to overwork the opening at the expense of the rest of the manuscript.

    Yes, you should polish the first 50 pages so that the reader is along for the ride before he has time to think about it. But then you also need to polish the first 100 pages for the same effect. And the middle. And the end. I revise a lot. One of those passes is focused entirely on the last 50 pages of the book because I know that in previous rewrites and edits I may have been fatigued by the time I started work on the ending.

    And because I’m a fairly new writer on the scene, trying to earn each and every reader and keep them, I’m terrified of any weak spot that will make someone put the book down and never pick it (or any other title by me) up again.

    So another crazy trick I’ve tried is nonlinear editing, or what I call the High-tension Shuffle. Here’s how you do it:

    Shuffle a PDF of the manuscript and then read through it in random order on a Kindle or tablet, looking at each page out of context, highlighting any tension, and asking, “what on this page makes you want to read the next one?”

    It doesn’t have to be big gun-in-the-face tension, just something, anything, that raises a question or makes you curious about how a character will react to a bit of dialog or a piece of information. I did this for my latest novel, RED EQUINOX.

    It hurt. Nothing makes a manuscript look weaker than robbing it of context and momentum. It also helped. Maybe I didn’t end up with tension on every last page–any changes that felt contrived, I dropped. But the experiment taught me that tension and suspense can improve almost any scene.

    It’s also important to not get too hung up on the first chapter. When I started writing RED EQUINOX, I knew I didn’t have the right first chapter, but I had to start somewhere. I dove in and kept going and ended up writing a whole new opening in the second draft.

  2. Certainly, there is tremendous pressure on authors, particularly those aspiring to be published for the first time, to write a smashing first chapter; a chapter that sells an agent on reading the manuscript and convinces an editor to buy the novel.
    While a fast moving, well written first chapter—suspense launched and tension crackling—is necessary, it’s not sufficient to ensure your novel will sell well, a key goal for most writers.
    I would suggest that the climax chapter is at least as important, if not more important, than the first chapter. The climax pulls together all that has gone before it into a deeply satisfying moment of revelation and/or emotional release, making the novel memorable and recommendable, a word of mouth phenomenon driving rewarding sales.
    Douglass Seaver, Author
    The Fourth Rule

  3. I don’t think you can overwork your first chapter. I think you can underwork the rest of the book. I think I must read my first chapter almost every time I sit down to write. Sometimes I make major changes in a work that seemed perfect the day before. Sometimes I just think of a better verb or a slightly different phrasing that sounds more appealing. The thing is, I do that for every chapter, which is why it took me eleven years to complete THE SOMEDAY FILE. The do-overs numbered in the thousands. But based on its virtually unanimous rave reviews, the end was worth the effort.

    Newer writers sometimes have a tendency to fall in love so thoroughly with their first couple of chapters that they rush through the rest of the story taking less care than they should. I like to tell my clients to think of every page as THE ONE a bookstore browser might open to in order to judge a book, and write each page as if it’s the make-or-break choice.

  4. I have a fondness for stories that end where they begin. It could be a similar setting, set of characters, or activity. When a protagonist has completed his journey, undergone whatever change he has; when the story’s mystery has been solved, or its conflicts resolved, I find it clever and satisfying to have the story return, in some way, to where it began, albeit with everything changed.

    1. Doug,
      Sorry it took me so long to respond to this. But I agree completely. As soon as you described a story coming full circle, I knew what you meant. I can’t name a book off the top of my head that did this, but I know I’ve read some. And I also find it very satisfying.

  5. I also like that idea that any page could be the one. It ties in nicely with the random shuffle technique I mentioned.

    And yes indeed, Douglass, the effect of returning is usually satisfying. And not only at the end. I remember reading Donald Maass’s advice (Writing the Breakout Novel) that returning to settings throughout a book is a great opportunity to illustrate character development by showing how the same place looks different, and may mean something different, through the same eyes.

  6. Sorry to barge in a bit late, but urgent matters at work kept me away.

    Douglas Wynne (two Douglas’ here!) I found your comment about shuffling and reading at random interesting and very useful. Yes, you should be able to dive in anywhere in a novel and be drawn in its wake. Tension must exist on every page. One thing we need to differentiate, though, is the difference between “tension” and “conflict” or ‘action.” Tension should be on every page, but not necessarily action. Just as good writing alternates sentence length and paragraph length, exposition with dialogue, action on every page will make action cheap; it’s everywhere.

    Even conflict, though present, should not be “in your face” all the time. It should be implied. This means: tension … something is about to snap yet it … it holds.

    The difficulty with starting chapters in this sense is threefold:
    1) New writers often make the mistake of believing that the first draft is it. It usually isn’t. Hardly ever, in fact. So making the first chapter work is most often not necessary in the first run through. Working on it–overworking it–can in fact be a waste of one’s time as it may be left out altogether. So, to avoid the pitfall of getting stuck with the first line, the first paragraph, the first thirteen lines, the first five pages … the first chapter, and not move on until it’s perfect, can be counterproductive.

    2) A great first chapter tends to bring into play all the underlying elements of the entire novel. It’s like a fractal. But in subtext. You are stating what the whole central conflict is going to be about, but “between the lines.” Maybe the first sentence can do this, maybe the first paragraph. The clue a reader will probably not realize was there until the climax revealed the first line–or chapter–for what it really was.

    3) If you take the two points above seriously, it will become clear that only after you are working through the entire novel (not once but many times, perhaps even during your final drafts), that the first chapter will hardly stand as it was when you first wrote it. And when you know this, going through the first chapter will be less stressful, less “I must have it right and perfect” every time you start a new story.

    Even if the first chapter is, in your eyes, perfect, and you have a contract, and you have been paid, a publisher can come and say: “I need you to start in chapter five, and spread what’s in the first four chapters throughout the novel.”

    It happened to me.

    Just as it happened that, in one of my early novels, I’d found the first sentence for my story, and it was with that sentence that it got published.

    Hardly ever happens.

  7. Leonardo,

    In writing my first draft, a good sentence to begin a chapter gets me in the right rhythm to capture the mood I intend. If that first sentence isn’t right, I often struggle through the entire chapter.

    1. Hi Douglass,

      Yes, it is important to try to start off with a good first sentence. However, it so happens that once you finished your first draft, and start with your revision, that the sentence or paragraph that kicked off your creative juices and gave you impulse to continue writing may not agree with the rest of the novel.

      Sometimes I go back to that first paragraph, and write another version of it even if I haven’t finished the novel yet. I usually create a new file, call it V2 (or V3, etc.) in order not to lose the original text. It so happens that the mood you are in at the moment can affect how your view your writing, a very subjective, time/moment-dependent sense of good or bad. So at times I tried different beginnings, and leave them for later.

      Quite a few years ago I read in one of Orson Scott Card’s forums that there is something known as “the first 13 lines.” Something has to happen in these first lines that makes you want to read on, some hint of bigger things to come, of an impending clash, of an important “destruction of equilibrium” in the air. In other words, something must happen—either physically, emotionally or mentally—that will affect the status quo of the story.

      The point is that there is the “first sentence” and the “first chapter” that starts our creative process, and then there is the “first sentence” and “first chapter” that appears in the final version, the one that will start the reader off with our story. Sometimes they are the same, but many times they are not. Simply being aware of this as being an integral part of the creative process, can take the pressure of to create a “perfect first copy.” Many times I’m curious, even after many drafts, how I will begin my novel.

      It is like an “after the fact” type of experience. “Hey! If I start it like this, now that I know how it will all end, I can fulfill my promise to readers.”

  8. Another way to avoid having to work overly hard on the first chapter, perhaps with the danger of being stuck with it and not moving forward with the story, is not knowing what the first chapter’s purpose and goal is.

    It will really depend on the type of story you’re writing—its genre mostly—to know how it should start.

    In thrillers, there are certain expectations.

    The first expectation is the introduction of either the main character (the hero, as it were), or the antagonist, maybe even both, but this is not usual.

    The second expectation is to get a sense of time and place, which will also define the type of story. As there are many sub genres within the thriller genre, readers expect to find out, as soon as possible, where they stand with a story.

    This will directly feed into the “stakes” issue. What are the stakes? What is at stake? So, action thrillers will most likely start out with action, while a psychological thriller will depend more on suspense and a promise of interpersonal conflict.

    Many times, beginnings fail to deliver on the promise of the rest of the story, and that’s when they will have be cut out, trimmed, or need serious changes.

    The key is to understand how to create the greatest tension and promise of conflicts to come from the very start, maybe even include what is known as “the Inciting Incident” … that which propels the story forward.

    The primer that will ignite the gunpowder, which will in turn send the bullet flying out of the gun’s barrel. If nothing has been “ignited” in the first chapter, the likelihood of readers feeling let down by a thriller are greater than in other genres.

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