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Opening Chapters - Help

Hi everyone,

I'm relatively new here, and I've been reading through loads of the forum posts on here, and am thrilled to have found such a supportive and knowledgeable community of like-minded souls.

I've finished the first draft of my novel, and have been tinkering with it for a good few weeks now. I can't leave it alone. I've sent it out to several test readers, and they've given me some really useful feedback. However... they are all people I know, and whilst I trust them to be objective, they're still obviously friends/family and may be pulling some punches.

I'm getting my submission ready, and I'm incredibly nervous that my first three chapters aren't strong enough. The way the story is written, there has to be a set-up first, before the 'big discovery' is made, and that's what I'm nervous about - that it doesn't come soon enough.

My novel is for adult audiences, a dark-comic urban fantasy, and it's approximately 90,500 words long. The first few chapters were originally between 1,500-3,000 words long, but the 'discovery' then didn't arrive until Chapter 5, which is way too late. So I merged some chapters together, but now worry that they're too long. Chapter 1 is 5,485 words, Chapter 2 is 5,579 and Chapter 3 is 4,274. The latter I'm fine with, but I worry that 15,000 words is too long, especially as some agents ask for first 3 chapters, or 10,000 word, whichever comes first.

Does anyone have any words of advice/wisdom etc about chapter length, long set up times, etc?

Thank you!

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Replies (4)
  • Hi, 

    I know it's not going to be useful but in terms of length a chapter needs to be how long it needs to be. My Sister's The Serial Killer has very short chapters which works really well with the story and the pace but on the other end The Lesser Bohemians is over 300 pages and only has 4 chapters but it works too.

    I don't think your issue is the length of the chapters. You say your story requires a set up, but in my experience, readers need a lot less info and set-up than we think. My advice would be to get some feedback on those first chapters to make sure that all the info in there are indeed necessary or post a synopsis of the start so people can weigh in.

    I hope this helps.

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    • Hi, 

      I know it's not going to be useful but in terms of length a chapter needs to be how long it needs to be. My Sister's The Serial Killer has very short chapters which works really well with the story and the pace but on the other end The Lesser Bohemians is over 300 pages and only has 4 chapters but it works too.

      I don't think your issue is the length of the chapters. You say your story requires a set up, but in my experience, readers need a lot less info and set-up than we think. My advice would be to get some feedback on those first chapters to make sure that all the info in there are indeed necessary or post a synopsis of the start so people can weigh in.

      I hope this helps.

      Thank you, it does help! I think I'm over thinking it all.

      I've had several test readers who've said it draws them in, and that they think it works quite well. But me being me, the anxiety monster is niggling.

      I have a few more people reading through, who I have asked to be brutal, so we shall see. Really good to get this kind of feedback, so thank you. It's put my mind to rest a little.


      Rach

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    • I'll add to Laure's take - which is perfectly accurate - by looking at this in another way. I will cheat by plucking a film example, but mapping it to book structure. (Ok, the genre is a complete mismatch, but it's one you will have herad of.)

      In a film, say with a running time of 2 hours (my example is 2h 2min), the inciting incident is - as a general rule - within the first three minutes. This is at 2-3% of the film's length. In relative terms, that gives you all of 2700 words to get to the key element that kicks your story into action. (That's 13½ minutes' reading time. It's only fair to give the reader something by that point.)

      And yet… there is a film that, in 1976, grossed $225m (over $1b in today's money) with it's inciting incident a full hour in.

      How? By providing a different hook within those first minutes, by building up a separate arc that then fed into the main story. Yes, it was setup. It was all backstory to the real inciting incident half way through the film. But it had all the elements of strong story in itself.

      And that is the key. You can, realistically, set your inciting incident pretty much anywhere you like within the length of your book. (Technically, you can stick it on the last page, but you better have a sequel lined up; that's all a good cliffhanger is.) You can do this so long as you start a story - one that directly feeds into the main story - within those first 2500-or-so words. Not backstory. Not worldbuilding. Not setup. Real conflict for your antagonist; the rug of normality pulled from under their feet.

      The film? Rocky.

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      • I'll add to Laure's take - which is perfectly accurate - by looking at this in another way. I will cheat by plucking a film example, but mapping it to book structure. (Ok, the genre is a complete mismatch, but it's one you will have herad of.)

        In a film, say with a running time of 2 hours (my example is 2h 2min), the inciting incident is - as a general rule - within the first three minutes. This is at 2-3% of the film's length. In relative terms, that gives you all of 2700 words to get to the key element that kicks your story into action. (That's 13½ minutes' reading time. It's only fair to give the reader something by that point.)

        And yet… there is a film that, in 1976, grossed $225m (over $1b in today's money) with it's inciting incident a full hour in.

        How? By providing a different hook within those first minutes, by building up a separate arc that then fed into the main story. Yes, it was setup. It was all backstory to the real inciting incident half way through the film. But it had all the elements of strong story in itself.

        And that is the key. You can, realistically, set your inciting incident pretty much anywhere you like within the length of your book. (Technically, you can stick it on the last page, but you better have a sequel lined up; that's all a good cliffhanger is.) You can do this so long as you start a story - one that directly feeds into the main story - within those first 2500-or-so words. Not backstory. Not worldbuilding. Not setup. Real conflict for your antagonist; the rug of normality pulled from under their feet.

        The film? Rocky.

        What a wonderful answer, Rick. Thank you for taking the time to post the above. All very interesting, and a great alternative perspective.

        I do love a good film reference, and this has certainly given me something for consideration.

        A lovely soul on this very group has actually offered a critique of my first chapter, and has helped enormously with the structure. I now feel quite a lot happier with things.

        Yourself and L have also given me some great food for thought, and it is something I will bear in mind for my next read through.

        What a wonderful community the Townhouse is, I'm very grateful to be part of it.

        Rachel


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