Monday, March 4, 2013



The First Date

The Comments: "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/ eye-gougingly 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, every sign in the Universe just screamed, in flashing red neon, that it wouldn't end well? 

Let me offer some real world 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 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 walked across the parking lot, trying to keep our dinner dry. 

I didn't start out trying to dislike the 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 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 because "Ha! Fooled you, sucker! It was totally 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. 

Have you ever been so excited about hearing about someone else's dream that you sit on the edge of your seat, scarcely breathing, waiting to hear what happens next in a dream you have no stake in? (correct answer is no.)

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. 

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." 

On the flipside, 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." 

The Character Waking first impression implies the writer is going to spend a whole lot of time describing mundane activities. And heck, if I wanted mundane, I'd spend time in my own boring real life, not in Borba the Pimp's world. 

For extra information on why this mundane Waking Character might be a false start and give false impressions, check out my post on Beginnings.

3. The Third Bad Impression:
A flashback within the first five pages. 

Do you have a decent opening scene in which you hint at 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 created a Character in the present story timeline, 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 just 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 in tense dialogues.

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 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.

Happy Writing and Revising!

Coming Up:
More Character
Dialogue Tags
Robert Bevan 
Nat Russo
Laura Oliva


  1. I don't think I violated any of the "first impression" rules, though there is maybe a bit too much exposition in my first few pages. But my novel is first person narrative, and that's how I write and think. I "exposed" on purpose. I guess we'll find out soon if it worked :)

    1. Thanks for reading, Jeff!
      Ah, another 1st person narrator. It's a great POV for exposing yourself.

      Your implication is spot on. Another set of eyes can tell you if it's TMI, not enough, or just enough to keep a reader engaged.


  2. starting the story off with waking up might work if the character is woken by an explosion or a burglar in the house or something. especially if the writer is able to pull off the transition from groggy to fully alert all while trying to sort out this unexpected situation.

    or it might not.

    1. Thanks for reading, Bob!

      That actually sounds like a kickass start.
      I'd approach it either by pulling back to distant 3rd omni or by going deep limited or 1st POV - depending on how the rest of the story wants to be told.

      Perhaps even start just a tad bit after the actual "waking" moment and get right into fully alert - "I scrambled off the bed, legs tangled in sheets, groping darkness for the light switch. Something woke me..."


  3. Damn it, I did a #2, REVISE!

    Thank you, I am going to get through the rest of your blog before I do some serious editing on my WIP.