One Chapter Challenge: Hook Your Readers Right
In this blog post, the Sheila and the Swede examine what essential ingredients are needed for a great first chapter. Read on for tips on how to hook your readers from the very first chapter.
Some years ago, I had a backlog of unread books on my Kindle and I felt like I needed to do a bit of “spring-cleaning”. And so, I decided to put those books to a one-chapter challenge. Meaning, if I wasn’t interested in reading past the first chapter, I would delete the book. Occasionally, if I wasn’t immediately put off, I would keep reading until the 10 % mark before deciding.
As writers, we can all learn from our personal dislikes as readers. The last thing we want is for our readers to ditch our books, right? How can we do our part as writers to prevent that from happening?
For my section of this post, I’ll talk about the things I look for in a first chapter preview when deciding whether to buy the book or not – or before deciding whether a free download is worth my time. Full disclosure: I’m a bit of a grammar nerd.
In her section, the Sheila will take a stab at the real meat of a romance story – the characters and their relationships. But first, let’s look at the bones.
Some might say that a strong enough story will make the readers ignore spelling and grammar mistakes, but that’s no excuse for being sloppy. Poor grammar and spelling sends a message: I can’t be bothered running a basic spell-check before publishing. No matter what type of word processing program you use, KDP does a spell-check for you when you upload, so don’t rush through the publishing process. There are also plenty of free editing tools around – such as Grammarly. Proper editing shows respect for your readers – it makes your story flow better.
If you’re using different POVs in your book, make sure they are distinctly different and that POV shifts are clearly marked either through headings or scene breaks. For romance writing, consider limiting your POVs to just the main couple in order for the readers to build a closer bond with your characters. Head-hopping, especially in romantic scenes, takes the readers out of the moment and should be avoided.
Cast of characters
In a romance, the fewer characters the better. You don’t need a slew of secondary characters unless you’re working towards a series, or writing a mystery/thriller where you need lots of suspects/victims. You especially don’t want to clog up your first chapter with introductions to characters that aren’t vital to the romance plot.
Show, don’t tell
It’s an age-old writing tip, but that’s because it works. Your first chapter introduces the reader not only to your story and your characters, but to your writing style. In some circumstances, telling is necessary, but try to incorporate all five senses into your scenes, and show reactions rather than explain them.
Make sure that your use of language is consistent so that your readers will know from the start what they’re in for. Everyone has different preferences, and personally I’m put off by excessive profanity and poorly written accents (I once started reading a book where a character was said to be a Swede but the accent was written like something out of Dracula).
Also, for all you international writers whose first language isn’t English (I’m one of you), pick an English language family you feel comfortable with and learn it well. I was taught “British English” in school, but I’ve learned “American English” from pop culture and I feel most comfortable writing – and speaking – American English. But, the Sheila is an Australian, and she writes in Australian English. The important thing is not to mix up your spelling and language style. Your readers, if native speakers, are sure to pick up on it.
If you’re rushing through the plot in the first chapter, that tells me as a reader that the story won’t have much depth to it, and I might as well be reading a synopsis. Work on making your characters not just two-dimensional, but three-dimensional. Make the reader care about what happens to them.
And on that note, I hand the pen over to the Sheila…
Now that readers can sample the first ten percent of a book on Amazon or on their Kindle, it’s more important than ever before to write a first chapter that grabs readers’ attention and compels them to hit the ‘buy’ button. The first chapter is not the place to put exposition or an info-dump. It’s the moment to hook your readers and show off who your characters are and what their story is about.
Here are the three key elements that determine whether I press ‘buy’ or ‘delete sample’.
A compelling voice
We’ve all picked up a book where we've read the first line, the first paragraph, the first page, and we've known we are going to love the book. For me, this happens when I connect with the character and their story. Maybe I like their sense of humor, or I’m invested in the character’s reactions to what is happening in their world. Perhaps I feel sympathy or anger on the character’s behalf. The point is, I feel something and want to experience more through that character’s eyes.
To establish rapport between your character and your readers, find a way to test your character in the first chapter. This will give readers the chance to relate and empathize with your character, to cheer them on and root for them.
A situation or an event
Some people say that you should get rid of your first chapter after the first draft is written. The reason for this is that we often use our first chapter to write our way into our character’s heads and hearts. Readers like myself, however, want to skip the build-up and go straight to the action.
Since this is romance, I’m not talking about the sort of action that involves a hostage situation, or a car chase. I’m talking about starting the book with a situation or event that somehow alters life for the hero of the story. Something must be changing, ending, beginning. Maybe the person has just lost their house, or they are in the middle of a break-up. Perhaps they’ve just been fired. Or, they’ve started a new job and they’re meeting their hot new boss for the first time.
Walking around, buying coffee or lunch, chatting with friends, gardening and other passive activities are not first chapter material. Exposition and backstory can and should be layered in later. You have the entire first act to complete the set-up, so make time after the first chapter. If something of importance doesn’t take place in your first chapter, you might be starting your book in the wrong place and you risk failing to hook your readers.
The connection between the romantic leads
In the romance genre, the relationship and dynamic between the romantic leads is too big a part of the equation to leave for later. If an author hasn’t introduced the love interest in the first chapter, I start asking why and getting antsy. How will I know if I’m going to like the hero/heroine or their dynamic if I don’t get a taste of it in the first chapter?
If the characters don’t actually meet or interact in some way, then they should at least be referenced – e.g. it is revealed that the hero/heroine is getting a new boss, or a new neighbour, or a new contractor etc.
If the character’s voice is compelling enough and the first chapter situation is enthralling enough, I will overlook the characters not meeting. If I’m not sold on the voice or the storyline, however, I need great emotional or sexual tension between characters to draw me into the story and make me turn the page.
What hooks you as a reader? What puts you off? Let us know in the comments section or connect with us on social media to chat.