It’s so important to hook a reader in the first pages of a book. Many readers will give a book a chance for a few pages; but if the material doesn’t hook them, they’ll put it down and never pick it up again. My sister, Morgana, says she gives a novel about 30 pages to hook her. There are just too many other books out there, waiting to be read.
So often, I see authors begin Chapter One with travel, where the character is sitting on a train, in a car, on a boat, thinking of what is to come. Just have the character there already!
The most egregious error, however, is when Chapter One begins in flashback mode, telling readers a lot of “necessary” background history. Here are two examples: Is it really necessary for the reader to know in Chapter One that “I had completed my formal education overseas, at the University of London, graduating with a law degree from Kings College in 1975”? or “The Fifth Brigade, a notorious army corps trained in North Vietnam, had been set loose on a rival ethnic tribal group that was in political competition with the new regime”? Nope. Nope.
In his book Revision, David Michael Kaplan explains why flashbacks are a problem:
“Beginning a story and then almost immediately going into a flashback, particularly one that lasts longer than the paragraph or two that opened the story, is almost always suspect. First, it usually stalls the main story. And if it’s a long flashback, by the time we get back to the main story, we’ve often forgotten it. Secondly, the reader can’t help wondering: If the flashback is so important that we have to leave the story’s ‘present’and get to it lickety-split, then why didn’t the story simply start there? For that matter, why isn’t it the main story?”
The way to fix this problem? Merrily include all the background you want in the first draft, then go back and delete that chapter. Start Chapter One with a bang — in medias res, in the middle of the action. Once readers are caught up in an action scene with a dynamic character, they’ll read on, and they won’t mind being filled in on the background history later.