Ten Ways To Utterly Screw Up Your First (Or Any) Chapter

By Rob Brunet

A couple years ago, I began teaching Novel Writing 1 at George Brown College in Toronto. As the name implies, it’s an introductory course and the participants vary widely in terms of past writing experience. Some have written and published short stories, some write professionally in one capacity or another, and others have simply signed up to chase a dream. My overriding objective each semester is to give each of them a bit of a headwind—to see them put 6,000 to 10,000 words under their belt and, hopefully, continue and complete a manuscript.

We cover basics about character, setting, dialogue, and point-of-view. I never get through a class without pointing out that there are no rules. Often, after leading a discussion about a particular story-telling approach—and why it works—I end by saying it’s not something I follow myself. I’m a pantser, but I explain the advantages plotters enjoy. I write primarily crime fiction, but don’t get me started about the supposed divide between literary and genre fiction—it’s about quality writing, whatever your pursuit.

The meat of the course is workshopping, and the greatest satisfaction I get from teaching it is watching someone go deer-in-the-headlights on the first night when I tell them they’ll be critiquing each other’s work, only to become adept at giving useful feedback over the next couple of months. It means they’re learning to write better.

In terms of my own comments on student submissions, I have two objectives. First, to help each writer improve their work. Second, to illustrate in that feedback what we’ve been learning together as a group. In other words, to point out the mistakes I see in hopes others won’t repeat them. But they do. We all do. If you write, you rewrite. And part of rewriting is fixing the mistakes—obvious or not—in a first draft. And a second draft. And a third.

To be honest, my job as workshop leader is easiest when the flaws are basic. But that gets boring. And the resulting feedback is less useful to both the submitting writer and their peers in the group.

So, in a bid to eliminate a whack of the obvious missteps in one fell swoop, I’ve compiled a list of rules every writer should break. Think of it as ten ways to utterly screw up your first (or any) chapter.

  1. Start with someone waking up from a dream. Preferably a deeply disorienting one. One that seems to have nothing to do with the story that follows. Then, you can surprise your reader by linking the plot to the dream a few chapters later. It’s called a gotcha. People love those.
  2. Start a flashback on page two. Use it to delay present action and create suspense. What happens next? Wait, let me tell you all about what happened before. It’s more interesting anyway.
  3. Use lots and lotsa characters. With names like Zak, Mack, and Jack. And Tim, Tom, and Tammy. The more characters, the more realistic everything is. The world is a busy place, after all.
  4. Open with six or seven pages of richly detailed exposition. Layer in every bit of backstory and contextual information you can dream up so your reader can’t possibly be lost (or surprised) by the time your characters actually do or say something worth writing about.
  5. Use plenty of untagged dialogue so your reader gets to puzzle out who’s talking. This isn’t a comic strip after all. Who needs word bubbles?
  6. Do use thought balloons, though. Say “she thought” and “he considered” and “she wondered” with abandon. You can really get in characters’ heads that way.
  7. Personify inanimate objects whenever you can. It makes them more real. Heck, while you’re at it, make them talk. Out loud. Preferably directly to the reader.
  8. Change point of view on a whim. Head hop from your protagonist to your antagonist to the guy walking by who has a particularly interesting insight about the goings on. After all, everyone’s opinion is important.
  9. Leave emotion out of your story. Just because something heart-wrenching takes place doesn’t mean characters have to feel What they feel should be obvious if you describe the action well enough. Let your readers emote for themselves, if they want to. Most people don’t read to be moved anyway.
  10. Make your protagonist utterly unlikable in a dreadfully boring way. Make him the kind of guy no one would want to spend ten minutes with at a cocktail party. His mother still loves him, of course. And that ought to be enough to make a reader root for him, right? Right?

 Don’t get me wrong. This is not about slagging my students. I’m blown away each time the course ends and I consider how far almost every writer has progressed by immersing themselves in their own and each other’s writing. And if I’ve done my job right, every one of them would be able to wear out a red pencil critiquing my own drafts.

It’s a reminder that we all start somewhere. More to the point, every one of these is a mistake I’ve made myself. Some more frequently—or recently—than I’d like to admit.

And if sharing this post with my incoming class in April helps a couple writers get out of the starting gate faster, well, there’ll be other stuff to critique.

ROB BRUNET writes character-driven crime fiction laced with dark humor. His debut novel STINKING RICH was listed on Crimespree Magazine’s Book Picks for 2014 and named one of the year’s top debuts by Mystery People. Brunet’s short crime fiction appears in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Thuglit, Crimespree, Noir Nation, Shotgun Honey, Out of the Gutter, and numerous anthologies. He loves the bush, beaches, and bonfires, and teaches creative writing at George Brown College in Toronto, where he lives with his wife, daughter, and son.

To learn more about STINKING RICH, click on the cover below: