Since acquisitions is part of my job at Mythos & Ink publishing, I read many queries. And while it’s never my favourite thing to do, I reject a lot of them (I don’t want to crush your dreams, I swear!). Almost all the queries I read are well-written and interesting. The main reason I reject them is not because of the query itself, but because of the sample chapter. Sometimes, it’s simply because I’m not excited about the story, and I think it’s important for me to be passionate about the projects I work on. But more often than not, it’s because the chapter features too many beginner mistakes, leading me to believe the writer needs more practice before they are ready to be published. While there are several mistakes that can ruin your entire book (telling vs. showing and boring dialogue come to mind), these are specific to your first chapter and beyond.

If you find agents and editors are not asking to look further than your Chapter One, I recommend checking it for these issues.

1. No hook.

Essentially, the hook is just a question. Not necessarily a literal question on the page, but a question your readers asks themselves, one that encourages them to keep reading to find the answer. Keep in mind, the question “What the heck is going on?” is usually not the one you want them asking, unless you have a Dirk Gently-type situation happening. Here is an example of a hook from the first sentences of A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin:

“The morning had dawned clear and cold, with a crispness that hinted at the end of summer. They set forth at daybreak to see a man beheaded, twenty in all, and Bran rode among them, nervous with excitement.”

So many questions! Who is being beheaded and why? Why are there twenty people riding to see it and who are they? Why is Bran “excited” about it (that seems like an odd emotion for a beheading)? Check out this post on How to Write a Gripping First Sentence for more examples of hooks.

You might find the characters, dialogue, and worldbuilding in your chapter super fascinating because you spent all this time creating them and know that exciting things are going to happen later in the book. But readers will not find it interesting unless you give them a reason to care, and they won’t care unless they’re curious.

2. Info-dumping.

I’m sure you’ve seen this advice again and again. But it’s repeated for a reason—because writers keep doing it! Often, writers are not even aware they are falling into this trap. Becoming aware is the first step. It is easy to dump a lot of backstory into the first chapter, because you want your readers to know all the cool stuff you’ve come up with and all the character’s history and they need to know it or how will they understand the rest of the chapter?

Interestingly enough, readers can get along very well with little information, as long as they are hooked and want to know what will happen next.

3. Action for action’s sake.

Writers are constantly being told the importance of action, to “tell and don’t show,” and misinterpret this to mean action scenes at the beginning of a story are the way to go. I’ve been seeing many first chapters that feature a battle or a fight between two characters. I find them absolutely uninteresting, because I have no idea what the stakes are and I don’t care about the characters yet. If you take a look at the beginning chapters of your favourite novels, you’ll likely find they are not action sequences like this. Even stories that feature battles and lots of action later on usually don’t begin that way.

For example, like we noticed earlier, A Game of Thrones begins with Bran riding along with his father and brothers to witness a beheading. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone begins with a description of Mr and Mrs Dursley’s “dull, grey Tuesday.”  Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games begins with Katniss waking up to discover the other side of the bed is cold. There is movement in these scenes, but they are not fight scenes just for fight scenes’ sake.

4. Unnecessary prologue.

I’m not going to weigh in on whether prologues should be used or not here, but I will advise you only to include one if it’s absolutely necessary. If the readers don’t need the information in the prologue, there’s no need to go all Robert Jordan on them.

To determine whether your prologue is necessary, try asking yourself these questions: Is your prologue just an excuse to include an action scene at the beginning of the story? Does it feature a secondary character rather than a main one? Does it include backstory that could be spread throughout the main story just as, if not more, effectively? Does Chapter One work just fine without it? If you answer yes to one or more of those questions, you’re probably okay to cut it, and your editor will thank you.

5. No conflict.

“But you just said don’t start with a battle scene!” Yes, yes I did. Conflict doesn’t necessarily mean a physical fight. By “conflict,” I mean tension that can occur between two characters, between a character and her environment, or between a character and himself. For example, the beginning of The Hunger Games is a simple scene where Katniss looks over to see her sister curled up next to their mother in bed. The tension comes from Katniss’s thoughts—she is obviously worried about them and about whatever this “reaping” thing is (note the hook questions here—What is the reaping? Why is Prim so scared she’s cuddling with her mother?).

There should also be tension in dialogue, but writers often miss out on this opportunity because they assume dialogue should sound like real-life speech. For example, a less practiced writer might be tempted to include dialogue at the beginning of A Game of Thrones while Bran and his family are riding to the hills. Robb could have asked Bran how he slept last night, or did he remember to cinch his saddle tight enough? But, they ride in silence, because that dialogue would serve no purpose to the story. Instead, the first line spoken after Eddard Stark condemns the soon-to-be-deceased is by Jon Snow, who tells Bran, “Keep the pony well in hand . . . And don’t look away. Father will know if you do.” Immediate tension. We feel it for Bran and in ourselves (who forces a seven-year-old kid to watch a beheading?).

If you consider these five points, including a hook, tension, and dialogue that serves a purpose, your first chapter will be stronger for it.

Go forth and write!