What Makes a Reader Pass the 3-Chapter Hurdle?
Pretty much anyone who's ever dipped into a manuscript on our Swoon Reads site has reached the Chapter 3 pop-up: “By the end of the third chapter, editors usually know if a manuscript will get a yay or a nay.” That pop-up isn't exaggerating—editors can usually tell how promising or lackluster a manuscript is by that point.
In my first couple of months as the latest Swoontern, I've read countless manuscripts, and in the process have begun to understand what editors see (or don’t see) in a manuscript. If you think you have a great story on your hands but you haven’t had luck with getting it published, the trouble may be how quickly and efficiently you pull readers in. Here are some tips for drawing in readers from the first page:
1.) Strong voice
The best way to make a good first impression is by setting your protagonist apart from that of any other novel. The most promising manuscripts are framed by a voice that balances uniqueness with realistic phrasing. If the voice is too plain and you’re simply narrating things as they happen, the writing will seem passive and will not excite readers. On the other hand, you don’t want a voice that strays too far from the content; for example, you wouldn’t want a character who lives in a bleak futuristic dystopia to speak like a Valley Girl. No matter which POV you choose for your novel, you want to have a clear tone of voice that matches your protagonist and/or their world.
2.) Smooth pacing
Though the first three chapters of a book may only take up 20-40 pages, that’s enough time for a manuscript to lull a reader to sleep or, conversely, to give them whiplash. A manuscript with potential will have a mix of slower moments that close in on the protagonist’s thoughts and feelings along with heart-racing scenes. This is a great time to get the perspective of another reader; maybe a scene that you think has smooth pacing because of how the writing process went is actually jolting to a reader with fresh eyes. One way to fix this is taking the same advice about voice into account here: Make sure you’re satisfying the needs of the moment. If your protagonist has just gone through a life-changing experience, your reader won’t be satisfied if the novel quickly speeds on to the next experience. Likewise, don’t stop an exhilarating moment to reflect on what the character had for breakfast that morning.
3.) Tease the readers
Readers need to feel that the story has a direction, and if they’re given three chapters full of exposition they will start to doubt there is an interesting end goal. But if you pose a question, readers feel obligated to stick around until it is answered. I know I have read much farther than three chapters into some dead-end manuscripts because there was the promise of a big reveal down the line. Even if you want to hold off on introducing the protagonist’s quest just yet, you can hint at a loose end from their backstory or some void in their life that needs to be filled. Mystery isn’t just reserved for Sherlock Holmes; it can be Tammy waiting to see if her crush likes her back, or the dragon-slayer who is on the hunt for their long-lost father, or even a fusion of both.
What keeps you reading past Chapter 3? Tell us in the comments below!