Monday, 30 August 2010

Ten top tips on writing first chapters

Well, I say ‘ten top tips’, but that’s just for alliterative effect. I doubt there’s much here that you haven’t read or heard elsewhere. For those of you who are thinking of entering Mills & Boon’s New Voices competition, though, here’s my advice on writing a first chapter that will catch the judges’ eye. Self-editing is an important part of the writing process, so even if you’re sure you’ve finished, think about putting your chapter aside for a couple of days and then re-reading it with the points below in mind.

1. Check that you’ve started at a point of change or crisis. Your first chapter should set the situation that is going to force the hero and heroine out of their comfort zones and into a relationship that both have a good reason to resist. The reader isn’t interested in a long-winded account of how the hero and heroine meet unless it introduces the conflict straight away.

2. Ah, yes, conflict. You do have a strong conflict, don’t you? Remember, a Mills & Boon romance is not about how the hero and heroine fall in love and get married. It’s about why, when they’re so attracted to each other, they not only won’t admit that they’re in love, but feel that they CAN'T. Your job as a romance writer is to create a situation that forces the hero and heroine together, and to give them conflicting goals that will drive them apart. This creates the push-pull of attraction and resistance which should drive your story forwards and keep the reader turning the pages. So make sure that your first chapter at least hints at the problem between your characters – and, please, make sure that isn’t just a misunderstanding that can be solved by a simple asking and answering of a question.

3. Get the hero on the page as soon as possible, preferably on page 1. I know you’ll find masses of examples of published books where this doesn’t happen (I’m writing one myself at the moment, and wondering, in fact, if this is part of my problem) but for maximum impact, get the hero and heroine together straight away.

4. Your first chapter needs to convince the reader that these are characters she can care about. She wants to know who they are and what makes them individual and interesting. Why should she care whether they sort out all their problems and find happiness together or not? What is it about these two people that makes their story worth telling? Give the reader a sense of your characters’ goals, of what makes them the people they are and behave the way they do. Is your hero wary of commitment? Why is independence so important to him?

Personally, I don’t like characters who are too perfect. If a heroine is slim, beautiful, sweet and good, what is there for me to identify with? Give her a little idiosyncrasy. Give her a quirk or a flaw that makes her come alive on the page. Heroes are a little trickier, I know, but there are an awful lot of alpha male heroes out there: what is it about yours that is going to make him stand out?

5. Avoid too much detailed backstory. Having a sense of a backstory is good, because it means you understand what makes your characters act the way they do, but if you try and get it all out there at once it slows the pace and frustrates the reader. She wants to know what’s happening now. It’s worth reading through your manuscript, and ask yourself if the story wouldn’t – honestly - be more effective if you started it at Chapter 3.

6. Everyone knows the importance of dialogue, but are your hero and heroine saying something interesting and relevant to the plot, or just talking for the sake of it (i.e. like most of us do in real life)? I see a lot of mss where the hero and heroine have banal conversations about what to eat/where to go/what the weather’s like etc. Unless the conversation tells us something about the characters or the problem between them, cut it. Oh, and make sure they’re talking to each other, about the issue that’s going to keep them apart. Avoid long conversations with secondary characters, especially in the first chapter. ( In fact, avoid secondary characters altogether as far as you possibly can.)

7. Check that you have created a vivid setting. The first chapter should establish where exactly your characters are, and create a convincing world to give your reader context. What – exactly - are your hero and heroine doing while they’re talking? What can they see? Are there noises or smells in the background? This is the time to bring in all that stuff about the five senses. Beware of long descriptions, though.

8. The first chapter should also establish the tone of your story. The reader wants to know what she’s going to get. Is it going to be a fun and flirty story? Brooding and passionate? A weepie?

9. Presentation. I know, I know, it sounds obvious, but run a spell check and check that your full stops and apostrophes are in the right place before you submit your chapter. Bad grammar and sloppy presentation can all too easily pull the reader out of the story, and if you want to get through to the next round, you can’t afford to irritate the judges unnecessarily (of course, they may not be as obsessed about punctuation as I am, but I’m pretty sure it holds as a principle)

10. Have you read and absorbed some of the excellent books on writing romance out there? Kate Walker’s 12-Point Guide to Writing Romance is particularly good - a very clear, helpful guide. I’ve also found Manuscript Makeover: Revision Techniques No Fiction Writer Can Afford to Ignore by Elizabeth Lyon a useful book.

Good luck!



  1. Great tips, Jessica! I'm bookmarking this page, for sure. I'm working on a new ms and revising a couple of old ones.

    I feel my first chapters tend to start a little slow - mainly because I prefer stories that set the scene before tossing me in. I realise most other readers prefer the action to start and then fill in the blanks, as it were.


  2. We all have our own preferences, Empi, so I do sympathise. It's always possible to find examples of great books that do exactly what everyone tells you *not* to do. And I'm the first person to say 'write the book you want to read'. But if you're serious about getting published, I do think it's worth trying for a faster pace at the beginning, because this is what will catch an editor's eye.

    Good luck!

  3. Hi Jessica,

    Thanks for the great tips. I'm really looking forward to the competition. It will be a very lucky writer who gets you as their mentor!

  4. Hi Jessica,
    Your tips are really great. You have been concise and clear while putting it so simply that it looks too easy to be true. Thanks a lot.


  5. Understanding the theory is easy, Ruchi, but putting it into practice is always more difficult! I've written 55 books, and I still struggle almost every time, even though I KNOW what needs to be done. If you can understand the structure of a romance, though, I think that really helps.

    Very glad this post seems helpful. If there's interest, I'll do another on creating emotional tension, which often seems to be a stumbling block with new writers - but not until after my 10th September deadline (just in case my editor is reading this!)

    Good luck, all of you ...wouldn't it be great if I got to mentor YOU???


  6. And you know with RSS, you can easily send things to twitter, FB, goodreads etc with blogger.
    It is very easy to use.

  7. Jessica, thank you so much for sharing this. You explained in a great way why we should start a novel like this. It makes perfect sense.

  8. Jessica - whart a great post. I think even established authors can learn from this. It's all so clear. And thank you so much for the recommendation for the 12 Point Guide. I'm always honoured when fellow authors say it's worth reading

  9. Jessica, thanks so much for such a clear guide to follow. Putting it into practice on a first time Chapter 1 will be challenging but I am up for the challenge. I thoroughly enjoy all your posts and look forward to any inspiration you have time to share. I too appreciate you recommending the 12 Point Guide.

  10. A lot of the time writing is like riding a bicycle: not that hard to do once you've go the knack, but almost impossible to explain how that knack works (unless you're Kate Walker, that is!)So I'm delighted my tips seem clear. Go, girls, and I look forward to seeing all of you in round 2!!

  11. Great post. Will you be my mentor? My bicycle seems to be wobbling at the moment!