Last week, in the 17th installation of my Writing Chronicles, I discussed the various ways to “Punish Your Protagonist“. I thought this week, I would make up for it by talking about how to Save the First Chapter.
Wherever you look, literary agents and editors impart a few golden rules: research the agent/editor before you submit your query, provide an economic-yet-comprehensive synopsis of your story in the cover letter, and make sure your manuscript is ready when you send in those first three chapters. In other words, try not to waste this rare opportunity to be read by a professional. Your book’s opening will decide if your story gets picked or tossed.
Getting the first chapter wrong is a piece of cake. We’re writers – an absentminded-yet-observant breed riddled with insecurities throughout our creative process and beyond. Even when we get the story right, we know it could have been better. It can always be better. But with a few simple precautions, that first chapter can be GOOD. What is better than good?
Here’s my two-cents’ worth to a workable first chapter:
Get your readers to buckle down from the first line. Nothing is more boring than an ordinary introduction. If only fewer novels began when the protagonist just got out of bed. Or my personal hated, the heroine looking into the mirror and reflecting on… her reflection. It’s swell when Alicia Silverstone is on the screen selecting her outfit but you can immediately SEE her – she is tres adorbs! You will need to put in a lot more effort to convince your reader that your character deserves the same attention. When writing a book, it is important to make sure you start by saying – or showing – something that will get your reader to sit up and take notice.
Decide in whose POV you will introduce the story. Most first time writers, myself once included, tend to think starting from inside the primary protagonist’s head is the only way to do it. After all, it is important to introduce your main character early – it’s his/her journey that the reader is venturing on. Pardon my French, but I think we have long established that non-missionary style can also be fun. I eventually learned that trying to see the same scene from the POVs of the different characters meant to be present in a particular chapter can produce unexpectedly good results. After I initially published I’ll Be True (my first *blush*) on this blog, I actually went back to change the POV from the heroine’s to the hero’s. What I now have is more tongue-in-cheek and action-oriented than the original pensive piece. I feel the reading is paced faster too.
Stick to that POV. The last thing you want to do is give your reader a headache before the good bits even start. A few months ago, I was reading a novel (I shall not name any names) where the story kept shifting between a giant werewolf and his love interest. Half the time, I couldn’t keep up with who bit who or which turned what and had to keep returning to the previous paragraph to figure out where exactly I lost my place. I read the book to the end, but by the time I finished, I read half the number of paragraphs in the book at least twice. Too much effort and not to mention all the time spent. I think I plodded through more out of my OCD than any conscientious obligation towards a fellow writer. Which is quite unfortunate because the plot and characters were quite interesting… when they didn’t bump into each other’s lines, of course.
Don’t let your POV character wander off into his/her past. Too much backstory in the first chapter is tantamount to wasting word counts. Now, normally I say to heck with word count. You will know when to snip. But there is an unwritten code about how long you can prattle on in your first chapter before your reader begins to get philosophical and wonder what is the meaning of life. Case in point, this particular rule I’m trying to explain. Start where the story starts. There will be chapters later where you can fill in bits of information about your character. Or not. Remember, your character’s backstory is mostly there for you to know him/her well; it’s not necessary to dump all that info onto your readers just because it took you days of research to figure him/her out. If you have ever made or seen a PowerPoint Presentation, remind yourself of how the slides were arranged. Was the conclusion revealed in the first slide? Was everything orally communicated written down also? No. Because your character is a journey and the actions and dialogues in your scenes your presentation skills. Focus on a few key details about the character, i.e. the ones relevant to the story, and share those with your readers in bite-size packs throughout the story. The journey can be so much more tantalizing that way.
Don’t fill up your first chapter with too many characters either. It’s your first chapter, not your neighborhood BBQ. Unless your story is about your neighborhood and does start with a BBQ – or a funeral – in which case, you might have to plan out your many brief introductions. But as the norm goes, try to limit your first chapter to a few relevant characters and make them interesting. Something that helps introduce your protagonist, whether from his/her own POV or another’s, and hints at the nature of the plot conflict. And you’re done! Andie’s dad’s cousin’s firstborn’s nephew-in-law is not relevant here.
Introduce a conflict, even if it’s only the tip of the iceberg. Really, like anything. It’s going to be there so no point in avoiding it. Just get the story going. Most stories ideally move through multiple conflicts. There will be the main plot conflict, then the individual conflicts the many active characters undergo, and finally the knickers the main characters get in a bunch for no reason – i.e. the confusions and insecurities we humans tend to enjoy suffering. You have an option to introduce any of them to help your readers get a sense of where your character is coming from. Don’t worry about whether your reader agrees with the problem; it only matters if it is important to your character and you are good to go.
Cut… and action! Show, don’t tell. Yes, I know you’ve heard/read this before. The reason it keeps popping up everywhere is because, without it, your story is bound to be a bust. I have never read a novel written entirely in the passive narrative [if anyone out there has, please share the title – I want to see what reading it feels like], but if they exist, I can understand why they are rare. Actions and dialogues help pace the story. They add charm to our characters even if the characters are evil. E.g. which makes you more curious? “Mrs Dursley was a nosy neighbor” or “Mrs Dursley … had nearly twice the usual amount of neck, which came in very useful as she spent so much of her time craning over over garden fences, spying on her neighbours.” [from the opening chapter of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone]
When you let your characters talk, make what they have to say interesting. This might sound very harsh but I’m only saying this to be kind in the long run. Boring conversationalists have no business writing fictions. And I don’t mean you have to be able to go out and socialize with actual people – if you have interesting discussions with the people inside your head, it will also make do. [Must make concession for the more introvert variety of our breed, mustn’t we?] But the point is, you may be the type who comes back home from a party or a fight and lies in bed at night lamenting missed opportunity to deliver that witty comment or comeback that came to you too late. The good thing is that it came to you at last. Use it. Your novel is your second chance to get it right. And just as you wouldn’t want to be caught floundering in a tête–à–tête in real life, you shouldn’t hang your characters out to dry.
Figure out what formatting works for you. This is the serious editing process stuff. Once you have manic-written your first draft and moved onto the editing, all those shifts in chapters, the narratives, the inner dialogues, the actual dialogues, the paragraph introductions, etc. should be dealt with. You need to figure out the best rule of format for you and stick to it throughout the novel. You want to put the character’s inner voice in italic? make sure those stay in italic throughout the novel. You’re going to put multiple scenes or change POVs within a single chapter? make sure you break it with line spaces and start the first paragraph as you would start a new chapter. Remember, when reading your first chapter, your reader is also programming him/herself to expect certain font styles, punctuations, and other logistical paraphernalia to mean a particular situation in your novel.
Ok, so now that I have peddled my whacked wisdom on you, it’s time for a bit of confession. There have been many books over the years that took me multiple restarts over months of resigned endeavors before I got to the part where I was unquestionably hooked. Some of these books even went on to become my favorites. The list includes the aforementioned Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Great Expectation, and that timeless marvel beginning with the words:
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
That’s right. It took me three tries before I made it through the first two chapters of Pride and Prejudice and entered the ballroom where Darcy snubbed Elizabeth. This goes to show that, though they say first impressions last long, these impressions might also not be forever. After all, where would Darcy and Elizabeth be if they could not put aside their differences to look a bit closer?
Alas! If only agents and editors had as much time to make love to our manuscripts…
Finally, a word on the Author Toolbox Blog Hop:
#AuthorToolboxBlogHop is a monthly event, hosted by the gracious Raimey Gallant, featuring various resources and learnings for authors written by authors. It is open to writers at all stages of their careers and the rules of sign-up are available in the overhead link. Also, if you are just interested in connecting with actual authors and see what they have got to say, the sign-up page has a list of participants to direct you to their pages. Happy reading and writing, fellow authors!