COMMON ISSUES WITH CHAPTER BOOK BEGINNINGS
I had initially planned to write a post sharing the top issues that I find when critiquing chapter books. But when I started reviewing my chapter book critiques, I realized that I would have to write an entire book. So, I decided to start with beginnings. What I offer is just a sampling of things to watch for.
Beginnings are a major stumbling block in most of the chapter books I critique. I share some of the areas that writers seem to struggle with below.
Who is the hero of the story? It is often difficult to determine who the protagonist is. This usually happens when there is a bunch of characters, problems, and descriptions introduced at the same time. If there isn’t a clear protagonist goal or problem established in the beginning, the reader doesn’t know who to follow through the story. They also won’t know why they should care about the story or any of the characters. If there are three characters introduced in the first chapter, and they each have a set of problems, the reader won’t know where to focus.
Is there an evident story promise? Many manuscripts I read are missing the story promise. In my opinion, the first chapter should tell the reader what the story is about. So, if your book is about a girl who finds an alien in her backpack, don’t wait until the story is half over to have her find it. If you are writing a mystery, don’t wait 100 pages before the mystery’s inciting incident is revealed. There should be at the very least a hint right up front of what’s to come. And that hint should tie in with the story’s hook and an idea of what your story is about. In the beginning, you want your story to say, by showing not telling, this story is about (fill in the blank).
What’s important to the protagoinist and why? Related to the above, the beginning should introduce the hero/protagonist and what they want externally and internally (consciously and unconsciously). Often characters think they want something for one reason, but there is an inner struggle or unconscious need that is driving them. The reader should learn something about the protagonist and his story conflict right away. This should be something that will cause the reader to get behind the protagonist and champion his cause. If there is no understanding of what’s important to the protagonist and why, it will be hard for readers to get behind him.
What is this story about? What can the reader expect? Also related to the story promise, there should be information in the beginning that creates questions and expectations in the reader’s mind. You want your reader to start imagining what might happen next, how things will unfold, how things might end. Whether what they imagine is right or wrong, creating expectations and curiosity is what will drive reader’s to keep reading. I’m not suggesting that the story be predictable. I’m suggesting that you work to keep the reader guessing, wondering, and feeling for the protagonist and other characters. Offer information that will lead them to guess about how it will all resolve.
Inciting incident. What kicks off the story? Sometimes, in the manuscripts I read, there is no true inciting incident. What moves your protagonist out of his normal world and into the world of the story that you have built? This should come early in the story, and preferably in the first chapter. At an SCBWI conference, Judy Blume stated that novels should begin on the first day that something different happens in your character’s life. Readers don’t want to see characters in their humdrum normal life for pages on end. They want something interesting and exciting to happen.
Introducing or dumping to much on the reader at one time. Character dumping can interfere with a strong beginning. Sometimes there are so many character and setting introductions that the story and the protagonist get lost in the mix. Naturally, there will be secondary characters and antagonists that readers need to meet in the beginning because they are super important to the plot, but make sure there aren’t so many characters or so much description that it gets confusing. Also related for beginnings and anywhere in the book, avoid info dumps and lengthy description.
Action is king (or queen ;-) ) in chapter books for young readers! I can’t stress this enough. While it is important to establish the “who, what, where, when, and why” of the story in the beginning, it is just as important to balance all of that with action. If this balance doesn’t exist, your reader will likely become under-engaged, overwhelmed with the information being dumped, and unmotivated to read on.
Avoid or limit backstory. Backstory can drag a chapter book beginning to its knees. I often see paragraphs of heavy backstory. This can be an indication that you should ask yourself, “Does my story start in the right place?” It would also be good to ask yourself, “What purpose does this backstory serve?” This is a really important question because it can’t possibly serve to move the story forward. Because backstory takes the reader backward, it is considered static narrative. Some other questions might be, “How important is this backstory, really?” “Is this backstory really warmup writing to get me (as a writer) to the true beginning?” “Is there a way to dribble this information in little bits here and there as the story moves along instead of dumping it all at once?”
I will repeat, action is key in chapter books. Backstory usually halts any possible action. And remember, you want the story to begin with action or an engaging event that relates to the protagonist’s problem or goal.
Don’t avoid backstory to the degree that you start the story too quickly and the reader has no idea why events are happening or what is driving your protagonist to act.
Lacking a great opening line that hooks. This one pretty much speaks for itself. I recommend pouring through chapter books for the age you are writing for and reading the first sentence and then the first paragraphs. Pinpoint the ones that capture you and pull you into the story. Notice the ones that don’t have that power. Which kind of first sentences and paragraphs would you prefer for you chapter book?
Watch for your reactions to the openings. If you can put yourself in a child’s place, all the better. Does the opening make you smile or chuckle? Does it make you sad or worried for the character? Does it make you curious? Does it make you ask questions? Does it make you develop expectations? Does it stir any emotion or sense of fun? Does it invite you in in some way that makes you want more? Does it offer information that you can relate to? Sometimes relating can come in a way that is not fully relatable but presents something familiar to you that is also different from your world. This type of relating can really ignite the imagination and curiosity. Think about how you can write a beginning that accomplishes the above.
As with all writing, there are no steadfast rules. There are only guidelines. You will see chapter books with backstory and/or info dumping. You will see chapter books that lack action. You will see chapter books with weak opening lines. Only you can decide what will make your chapter book the best that it can be. I personally believe the tips I offer is an excellent place to start. Following is a couple good blog posts about beginnings in novels. I highly recommend you read them.
Following are some other blog posts I’ve written about chapter book writing.
About the Author
Alayne Kay Christian is an award-winning children’s book author. She is the author of the Sienna, the Cowgirl Fairy chapter book series and the award-winning picture book Butterfly Kisses for Grandma and Grandpa. Alayne is the creator and teacher of a picture book writing course, Art of Arc. She is a professional picture book and chapter book critique writer. And she is in her third year working as a critique ninja for Julie Hedlund’s 12 X 12. Alayne is a graduate of the Institute for Children’s Literature and she has spent the last ten years studying under some of the top names in children’s literature.
Link to Sienna, the Cowgirl Fairy: Trying to Make it Rain: https://www.amazon.com/Sienna-Cowgirl-Fairy-Trying-Make/dp/1946101052
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