I've been wanting to find time for this post from #Pitchwars and have been so swamped with work. But edits are off to my co-mentees and a chapter is finished. Time to blog!
Today, I want to make sure you consider expectations. Whether you know it or not your query letter and your first chapter are setting up expectations in the reader. I noticed it so much more when I went from reading a first chapter to a full manuscript. Writer beware of setting up false expectations.
In Pitchwars I requested to see about ten fulls. I'd hoped to have time for more, but my schedule just got overloaded the last week. Of those, I read all the way through three of them. Not all, but some of the others I stopped reading because the pages after the first chapter didn't match. Some aspect was changed.
I don't think I've ever analyzed this before. But I noticed it pretty heavily in Pitchwars this year. I think that's because in most of the contests I'm involved with, I only read 250 words. It seemed like often what I believed would happen next and what did happen were different somehow, even though I try and keep an open mind when reading.
A first chapter has to fulfill so many goals. It has to start the character arc and work on building a complete character. There has to be some world building while avoiding information dumps. The plot should at least be hinted at in some way. The tone and mood of the story are set in the first chapter. A reader gets a sense of the voice in the first chapter. So a first chapter has to be a tightly woven and complex design. But as you're building characters and worlds, you're also building the readers expectations for what will occur in the rest of the book. And if you're not careful the gap between those expectations and reality will be too wide.
A reader's expectation can be disappointed over the plot, the reader may expect the goal and stakes to head one way and it suddenly veers off to a different goal for the characters. If there's nothing in the query or book blurb to warn of this, such a change can make a reader lay down the book and be done. But plot isn't the only way that expectations can fall short.
The tone and voice of the rest of the book need to match the first chapter. If the reader thinks they are reading a mystery and it suddenly becomes a romance, there's going to be trouble. If you start the book with a certain character and in chapter two that character completely disappears or changes dramatically, why that can cause head scratching as well.
If the first chapter is full of explosions and spying and action and the next thirty percent has none of that and loses a sense of conflict, that can also cause a let down.
For the first time, I really saw why agents don't care for prologues. Because I saw a lot of first chapters that were actually prologues in disguise. It isn't so much what's in the prologue that's the problem. It's that the expectations then might not match. If we jump time periods or character ages in chapter one to chapter two, that can totally throw a reader off, especially if something else about the story no longer matches up.
So when you're building characters and weaving words, think a little bit about consistence and what the reader might want to see. Does your first chapter match with what comes next or might you be creating an unreliable situation? Be off by too much and you may lose your readers.