Critique partner and beta reader feedback can be gold, but as editing is a complex task, it can be difficult to decide what exactly you’d like critical readers to comment on, especially in the crucial first chapter. Effective reader feedback can help you evaluate how accessible and engaging your character and story world introductions are to unfamiliar readers, how effective/ counterproductive backstory is and to identify if you need to alter the story’s pace so the reader can keep up/ doesn’t get bored. The reflective questions in this post will help guide critical reader feedback (and in some cases self-editing), giving you insight into how unfamiliar readers find your opening chapter and food for thought on future edits of your story’s opening.
Does the story start in the right place?
Does ‘chapter one’ narrate whole paragraphs or more of events which happened before chapter 1 began? (If the reader really needs to know such events, those events might need to become chapter 1).
Does chapter one begin with the present story, or with info dumping or backstory? Or does it slowly show the reader the characters life, with chapters and chapters of narration before the inciting event indicates the character’s life is about to change and the story actually moves forwards? (If it takes ten chapters to reach the inciting event, I suspect the story starts six to nine chapters earlier than necessary).
Is the main character (or chapter one’s point of view character) doing something interesting to read on page 1? (Or lead up actions like a long, dull drive, instead of opening with characters reacting to their destination as they climb out of the car on arrival?)
What is your impression of the MC? -this can help a writer check that they have portrayed their MC consistently throughout the novel, and that they haven’t over or underdone their MC’s nature/ situation etc in the opening chapters.
Can You Get to Know and Care About Characters?
Does the main character’s dialogue and actions give you a good sense of who the MC is and what they’re about? Can you relate to the MC or their personal situation/ relationships in some way?
Are there too many named characters for you to keep track of?
Are any character names too similar to each other to easily tell apart?
Do you notice discrepancies in character actions or dialogue?
Do you understand the characters actions, and can you follow the character’s logic -or do character actions confuse you or seem implausible?
Do you get bored or does your interest wane at any point? (How do you find the pace?)
Letting a writer know you’ve lost interest at a certain point in a chapter and want to start skimming is helpful -because it suggests a problem with pacing. If you can give feedback about why you think you started to lose interest -that’s even more helpful. It might be because; you feel the narration is getting bogged down with details or descriptions which slow the story. Or because there’s info dumping or chunks of telling which isn’t part of dialogue, character internal monologue or reaction to the present scene, ie. without context, possibly pulling you out of the story.
Are you catching neat little peeks of what’s already happened in characters’ lives or the world in general as the character interacts with other characters and their world? Or does a character stand still so the writer can tell you five paragraphs about an event they’ve already experienced (but you missed)?
World Building/ Scene Setting
Do you have a clear enough sense of where and when the story is taking place?
Do you have a sense of character roles within their world? Of their jobs, status, what they can and can’t do? (For SFF this will go right into how clearly magic systems, alternate political systems, tech etc are shown).
Do you have a sense of what is possible and what is likely within the story?
Information -Showing V.S. Telling
Where possible, do you get to ‘see’ things by what the character sees, hears, says, smells, thinks and how they physically, verbally or emotionally react to their world and story? Or does the writer tell you, ‘the city has x and that character felt impatient because he had a headache.’
(NB. Bear in mind that the point of ‘showing’ is to make the story more interesting to readers and it isn’t practical to ‘show’ everything. Eg. Things like creation myths may need to be told.)