Monday, 7 July 2014

First Chapter Blues

By Anne Hamilton

The human brain is ‘wired 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.
Instead of dropping little hints, building up a list of clues and letting the reader savour the mini-mystery, authors are increasingly tending to adopt this counter-productive strategy. Just as the emotional impact of hearing about a friend’s trauma is much greater than that of hearing about a stranger’s, so too it is with characters we’ve come to know through the course of a story. It’s better to leave it until a much later chapter where it can deepen our appreciation of a chara
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.

19 comments:

  1. Thanks, Annie, for your clear and helpful explanation of these first chapter pitfalls. While I own I have never been all that keen on sticking to a formula with my books, it makes sense to take such wisdom on board.

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    1. Hi Jo-Anne - I think this is particularly important for aspiring authors who may find a commissioning editor only reads the first chapter, if that. Hence why it's so important to get it right.

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    2. *whispers*

      It's also important for authors approaching people to review their books. If I'm asleep after the third page of the Kindle sample, I'm going to politely turn you down, no matter how enticing the book description was.

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    3. Too true. I didn't realise you could get a Kindle sample before deciding to review! Wow, that must weed out a few.

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    4. I learned the hard way to always read the Kindle sample before agreeing to review. That's not to say I enjoy every book I agree to review, but it at least weeds out some of them.

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    5. Hi Iola
      I wouldn't expect it to weed out all. In fact, I've realised some people have had substantial help from an editor to get the first couple of chapters right but let it go after that.

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  2. Thanks Annie. I thought the last one was particularly relevant. One I hate is information overload where an author has researched a subject and wants to tell in the first chapter or so all they learnt about that subject.

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    1. Hi Dale
      Yes I think the "iceberg treatment" is the right approach when it comes to research information. Leave at least 90% of it out!

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  3. Annie, excellent post! RUE (resisting the urge to explain) is an essential ingredient in an opening chapter because it helps to create story questions in a reader's mind. The psychology behind why we identify with certain story structures is fascinating.

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    1. Hi Narelle - I agree absolutely, though I've seen RUE taken to extremes too. Where the author has been so vague that it's annoying. Instead of mystery, it's confusion. So there's a fine balance to be maintained.

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  4. Hi Annie, I'm a big fan of following the rules. I would have missed out on a vital education in story craft, if I hadn't studied 'first chapter' tips and tricks.
    Thanks for the encouragement to deliver our best to our readers.

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    1. Hi Dotti - the rules are great until they become second nature. That's when you can afford to start breaking them. You know how and when to do so, so that it works.

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  5. I find that first chapter tricky to write even knowing the 'rules'. So much is loaded on those first few words. Thanks for your insights Annie.

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    1. Hi Jenny - I think the trick is to write the entire novel and then immediately go back to the first chapter as if it's the one after the end. If you're in the right zone with the end, you'll keep that sense flowing. I usually find authors don't settle into their voice until the fourth chapter, so this is one way of getting it right.

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  6. Hi Annie,
    Thanks for this article. I was reading a new novel which didn't grip me after a chapter or two, and going through your list above, I can see reasons why. What Lisa Cron says about the brain being wired for story in interesting too.

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    1. Thanks, Paula. Lisa's book is very interesting and offers some unexpected insights into the nature of conflict.

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  7. Annie, I've just read screenwriter Michael Arndt's piece about setting a story in motion. He simplifies it much as you do. I am doing that first page/chapter work on most of my novels now.

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