By Anne Hamiltonwired for story’, according to Lisa Cron, when discussing brain science to craft stories. Probably even before Scheherazade invented the cliff-hanger so her husband wouldn’t kill her, humans have felt a sense of satisfaction with some story-telling styles and not with others.
Sure there can be cultural differences. In the west, we like an underpinning of logic. In Japan, mood and atmosphere are the all important features. Master story-tellers know how to spin out a tale so the audience, like Goldilocks, feels it sits just right. Such knowledge comes from lots of practice and discovering when and where the audience responds.
In the last few centuries, genre fiction has acquired the air of being very formulaic. To a degree this is true. As an editor, I often encounter authors wanting to break the mould. However, there’s a very good reason for the formula: it is the one publishers have found from long experience most satisfies the human craving for story. If you’re going to break the formula, you need to think hard and long about why.
First chapters have to be an author’s best writing for many reasons: not least because often it’s all a commissioning editor will look at. (And often they won’t even look at all of it.) So what makes a good first chapter? Most writers today realise that opening with a narrative hook is almost essential. Tick that as pretty much common knowledge.
However, beyond that, it can be uncharted territory. Let’s look at mistakes to avoid. Most common problems fall into two categories: structure and character development.
- The narrative hook should be integral to your story, not a tacked-on introduction of high-level drama or mystery. The story shouldn’t fall after the opening and flatten out, it should dip before rising again to a mini-crisis at the end of the first chapter.
- If, just past the narrative hook, the story pauses to spill an information dump on the reader or fill in several paragraphs of backstory, all the momentum of the opening is lost.
- If the story backtracks after the opening to reveal what led up to the narrative hook, then the forward movement is stalled and it’s usually immensely difficult to retrieve it.
- If the beginning features nameless characters performing vague, mysterious actions, it’s not necessarily intriguing. The author may be aware of the significance of it all but, for the reader, there’s a risk of losing the plot before it’s even started.
- Perhaps the biggest mistake, however—because it doesn’t seem like a mistake—is revealing the protagonist’s trauma too soon. This is an issue I increasingly encounter. Way back in the character’s past, there’s a critical incident that’s the key to their behaviour. Without this, nothing about their actions makes true sense. Unfortunately because authors wants readers to like their characters from the start, they can be premature in their revelations.
cter and create a rounder, more full-bodied impression.
These five structural/developmental points are ones that tend to put me off, right from the start. Do you share this? Or find there are others annoy you more?
Anne Hamilton is an editor and author. She once taught mathematics for three decades. Her new book analyses the mathematics of one of the greatest of all English poems, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.