CritiqueMatch is a platform where writers and beta readers connect and exchange work for free! New: You can also buy a critique or beta-reading service from our top-rated users!

Apr 15, 2021

Using Stephen James’ Eight Requirements to Improve Chapter One

By: K.N. Quinn

I have read a lot of first chapters during my time on CritiqueMatch. I base my feedback heavily on “Stephen James’ 8 requirements of a story's beginning,” from his book Story Trumps Structure. These eight requirements are essential to writing a solid first chapter that will hook the reader, and have helped me become not only a better writer but also a better critique partner. 

1. “Orient the readers to the world of the story.”
I find people are fantastic at writing the story world. After all, this is the fun part. The problem is consistency. Details introduced in the beginning of a story have to stay consistent all the way through. Slang cannot be introduced to a story that uses stiff prose. Introducing key elements too late will also interfere with consistency. Important elements such as a vital character or a magic system cannot be introduced in the second act. The reader needs to be oriented to the story world and its limitations in the first chapter. 

2. “Lock in the genre.”
A story must start with a clear indication of the genre it is written in. A romance shouldn’t start with a grisly murder; this doesn’t fit the genre. It may be exciting, but it can mislead the reader and promise unrealistic expectations. Content and readability also have to match the targeted audience. For instance, mature language cannot be used for younger readers, and the character needs to be relatable to them. An older character with adult problems is not going to be relatable to a youth audience. Sometimes we have to be realistic with ourselves and change our target audience. Maybe an older audience would be more interested in our concept? Maybe our story will be better accepted better by a younger demographic? 

3. “Give readers a setting in time and place they can picture.”
Learning to paint vivid word pictures is a skill that takes time to develop. Description requires balance. Obvious details should never be included. The sky is blue – everyone knows that it does not need to be described to the reader. Describe things that the reader cannot picture without help. Remember that every minute detail does not need to be described. The reader’s imagination will fill the gaps between the spaces of information you give them. If you drown the reader in too much prose and descriptive language, this can make a story boring and difficult to read. On the other side of the spectrum, beware of “white room syndrome.” Do the character's voice and actions come out of a void? 

4. “Set the story’s mood and tone.”
A dark story should not start with a picture of a wonderful world doused in flowery purple prose. If a story has a dark ending, it needs to begin dark. Even if something good happens to your character in chapter one, focus on the subtle dark landscape in the background to keep your tone consistent. A story that starts with an inconsistent tone makes false promises to the reader that the story cannot deliver. 

5. “Introduce the author or narrator’s voice.” 
Voice is a tricky topic, but the best way to improve is to remove unnecessary words. Using unnecessary words can make voice sound unsure or indecisive. Prose should be clean and tight. If any words can be removed from a sentence without changing its meaning, these words are redundant and should be removed. If voice is a struggle, removing redundant adjectives and phrases can help. Another great way to improve is to find words that are overused and remove as many as possible. 

6. “Introduce a protagonist whom the audience will care about or an antagonist that the audience will fear.”
The best way to do this is by creating a character that we can relate to or by seeing the character do something admirable when no one is watching. Your main character is the most important element of the story. You just need to show the reader in the first chapter why they should like your character as much as you do. If you succeed, the reader will be interested. First and foremost, a character needs a goal, whether they be an antagonist or a protagonist. The pursuit of this goal is what will supply a story with dramatic tension as the reader wants to know whether the character will achieve it or not. Without a goal, a story has no backbone, and this is the number one problem I see in a lot of first chapters. Tension is the lifeblood of a story it cannot live without. 

7. “End the beginning in a way that is both surprising and satisfying.”
 The end of the first chapter has to have a reason to read the next chapter. You cannot leave the reader an opportunity to walk away at the end of the first chapter because they will. Chapter one of The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins) ends with Primrose’s name being drawn. This is not only surprising, but it forces the reader to keep reading. A weak ending to the first chapter provides an opportunity for a reader to put the story down. 

8. “Snag the audience’s attention.”
The story needs to start in the correct place. Worldbuilding should be done after the story has begun. Start the story at a turning point, not with a character's everyday life. If a large amount of detail is given before the story begins, the reader will lose interest. Stories do not need to be linear. If a detailed backstory is necessary, cut to the crisis point first and then detail how the character got there at a later time. This will build more interest as opposed to following the character on their day-to-day until they get themselves in trouble.


About the author
K.N. Quinn started using critique match in May 2020. K.N. is a self-taught writer who has been dedicated to improving their craft for the past 12 years. Traditionally published in a minor publication K.N. is currently focused on professionally publishing their 5 part series: “God Complex” a fast-paced romantic crime thriller. For more information follow K.N. Quinn on Instagram: @k.n.quinn