First chapters

by Alexandra Sokoloff

Last post I went on a rant about VOICE because of the first chapter submissions (first three chapters, really) I was reading for a conference, and today, because it is cold, I am going to rant some more about FIRST CHAPTERS in general.  

There is no question that reading a bunch of – well, anything – in a row gives you a good idea of what to do and not to do in executing that particular thing.   And I maintain I can’t teach anyone to write, but I sure can point out the problems I’m seeing over and over and over again.  So here’s a brief list. 

1. Inexperienced writers almost inevitably START THEIR STORIES IN THE WRONG PLACE.

Now, please, please remember – I am not talking about first drafts, here.  As far as I’m concerned, all a first draft has to do is get to “The End”.   It doesn’t have to be polished.  It doesn’t have to make sense to anyone but you.   At the Southern California Writers Conference this weekend screenwriter and novelist Derek Haas (WANTED, 3:10 TO YUMA)  referred to his first pass of a story as “the vomit draft”.   Exactly.     In my current WIP I am writing scenes out of order in a way I never have in my entire writing life.  So what?   I’m switching POVs in a way I never have before and I need to write some things out of order because I have no idea what the best order is.   I’m writing scenes I know will be in there somewhere and I’ll figure it out in the second draft, or the third, or the fourth. 

Just get it all out – you’ll make sense of it later. (for more on this:  Your First Draft Is Always Going To Suck )

BUT – when you’ve gotten to the end, if you are a newer writer, I suspect you will probably want to start your story 20, 30, even 50 pages later than you did.   And this is partly why:

For some reason newer writers think they have to tell the whole back story in the first ten pages.   Back story is not story.  You will lose every potential agent, editor, and future reader in the known universe.   So –  

2. NEVER MIND THE FUCKING BACKSTORY!!!!!

With almost no exceptions, you should start your book with an actual scene, in which your main character (or villain, if that’s who you start with, that’s fine too) is caught up in ACTION.   You should put that scene down on the page as if the reader is watching a movie – or more precisely, CAUGHT UP in a movie.    The reader should not just be watching the action, but feeling the sweat, smelling the salt air, feeling the roiling of their stomach as they step into whatever unknown.

We don’t need to know who this person is, yet.  Let them keep secrets.  Make the reader wonder – curiosity is a big hook.   What we need to do is get inside the character’s skin.

So here are two tips:

3.  IDENTIFY THE SENSATION AND EXPERIENCE YOU WANT TO EVOKE IN YOUR READER – AND THEN MAKE SURE YOU’RE EVOKING IT.

I cannot possibly stress this enough. We read novels to have an EXPERIENCE. Make yourself a list of your favorite books and identify what EXPERIENCE those books gives you. Sex, terror, absolute power, the crazy wonderfulness of falling in love? What is the particular rollercoaster that that book (or movie) is? Identify that in your favorite stories and BE SPECIFIC. Then do the same for your own story.   Are you getting that – and I mean ALL of that – into your first chapter?  Your first three chapters?   If not, you have work to do.   And you know what?  That goes just as much for me, and all of us.   In spades.  GIVE US THE EXPERIENCE.

4, Make sure you’re using all SIX SENSES.   A great exercise is to make sure that every three pages you’ve covered specific details of what you want the reader to see, hear, feel, taste, smell, and sense.    All six categories, every three pages.   (Sounds too by the numbers?  Try it.  Now admit it – isn’t that better?  Aren’t you just more there?)

5.  SHOW, DON’T TELL.

This is one of those notes that always annoys me until I have to read 15 pages of “telling”.   Then I realize it’s the essence of storytelling.   If your character has a conflict with her brother, then let’s see the two of them fighting – don’t give us a family history and Freudian analysis.   Action, action, action. 

6. DETAIL THE INTERNAL DRIVES OF YOUR CHARACTER AND SET THE GENRE.  

You don’t need to detail the family tree or when they moved to whatever house they’re living in or their great love for their first stuffed animal.

What we need to know instead is: their DESIRE and WHAT IS BLOCKING THEM.  We need to feel HOPE AND FEAR for them.   We need to get a sense of the GENRE, a strong sense of MOOD and TONE, and a hint of THEME. 

And  –

7. SOMETHING HAS TO HAPPEN, IMMEDIATELY, that gives us an idea of WHAT THE STORY IS ABOUT.

You can do this to some extent by setting mood, tone, genre, hope and fear,  and an immediate external problem – but also I mean you should get to your INCITING INCIDENT and  CALL TO ADVENTURE as soon as possible.  Especially if you are a new writer, you cannot afford to hold this back.   It can make or break your submission, so find a way to get it into the first few pages or at the very least, strongly hint at it.

For more discussion and examples of all of these terms, see  ELEMENTS OF ACT ONE.

And if you disagree with me, awesome!  But if you do think everything I’ve just said is wrong, then at the very least, make your own list.   Ten first chapters, by your own favorite authors, that just turn you inside out.  And take a look at what those storytellers are doing in those chapters.  Break it down.   Really look at it from every angle.  What is it EXACTLY that makes you commit in a few pages, a few sentences, a few words, to those authors and those stories?  

And then  – meaning once you’re finished with your first draft and have celebrated mightily – look at your own first chapter and be ruthless with yourself.   Are you doing whatever it is that they are doing that you love so much?   Are you?  Really?  

Or is there something that you might do… just a little more like – that.

That’s all I’m saying.

And for today, I would love to hear about some first chapters that break every rule I’ve outlined above and still rock your world.   Seriously.   And your favorite first chapters in general, of course.  I just reread THE FIRM for the dozenth time or so and that first chapter still just knocks me out every time.  Perfect thriller opening.   THE SHINING, THE TREATMENT, ROSEMARY’S BABY – THE GODFATHER!! – those are some of my favorite books from the very first page.   Give us your own list!)

Or whatever else you want to talk about, as always.   And keep warm this weekend!  (Snow in San Francisco?????)

Alex

And, right – remember that we have Captcha now and you have to type in the letters to get your comment posted.  Sorry, but it’s the spammers who should die.

28 thoughts on “First chapters

  1. billie

    I'm up really early today b/c we're going foxhunting – wanted to add that often when I read mss for folks I find that many times they DO have a really wonderful beginning chapter – only it's often, as you said, about 50 pages in. It's usually very clear (to me) that that's where the story starts. I've read a few mss where the first chapter was actually in the last third of the book. And amazingly, it was almost seamlessly just taken out and put up front. Sometimes we know what we're doing when we're writing – but just not in the right order. ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. Grace

    Thanks for this post. I'm checking out a new writer (to me) this afternoon and I'm hoping her book is one you were writing about in the blog. I shiver when I think of my first drafts, I'm improving, but I need to study other writers more closely. Snow in SF?ร‰ร‰ Yikes,

  3. al

    Billie, thank you, that is an excellent and true point. The real first chapter often comes somewhere entirely else in the first draft. Part of becoming a good writer is learning how to recognize that.

  4. judy wirzberger

    Reading your post is like going to a buffet breakfast. I walk down the line seeing everything I've had before, but wait – is that crab cake under that poached egg. Hmmm. Plain toast, swirl rye toast with boysenberry jam. Got to have it. Scrambled eggs yummy, but with capers and slivers of salmon. What an interesting way to have something. I sort through taking a bit of this and a piece of that. Back to the table to discuss my plate with my friends. No, I hadn't tried the potatoes with bits of onion and dollops of sour cream. Back to the buffet. Mind full nourishing. De Light full digestion. Plans to incorporate recipes in my own masterful productions later rumble.

  5. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    I read your blogs to help ground me, Alex, and to keep me on my toes. Often I learn that I'm doing it right, that my instincts are there. I feel more confident when I read your blogs. Interestingly, I've been writing and rewriting my first chapter for months. I can't seem to write that "vomit" draft – never have. I'd rather write a very detailed treatment/outline, get it honed as hell, even if it takes me months to do it, than write a draft that I'm going to throw out, top to bottom. I need me my map.
    God…it's all such a process. There just aren't any shortcuts.

  6. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Well, maybe I wasn't clear. Derek is a screenwriter – so he and his partner have the whole outline done and sold before Derek goes off and does the vomit draft, and then the two of them do pass after pass, separately and together. That's my process, too – a hugely extensive outline and then a vomit draft and then all kinds of other drafts on top of that. Kind of a combination of my screenwriting process and my theater directing process (I've always called my first draft the "blocking" draft, like blocking actors in a play.)

  7. tess gerritsen

    Alex, I heartily second your observations. Back when I was teaching writing workshops,I found that too much backstory was the most common flaw in first chapters. By the time you wade through all the paragraphs telling us about the heroine's childhood, love life, job, and three cats, you think you're reading a biography, not a story.

  8. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I'm just reeling at the idea of a Tess Gerritsen writing workshop – wondering what kind of bribe or extortion it would take to get you to teach one of those again.

    Thanks for the backup, Tess… the backstory problem really is so painfully clear when you read a bunch of submissions in a row. And so easy to at least START fixing: cut, cut, cut.

  9. KDJames

    Alex, I've said it before and will say it again: You are awesome. Seriously, if you decided to teach a class about washing machine repair at high altitudes using Stone Age implements, I'd sign up. Because I know I'd learn something important about writing. Thanks for another great teaching post.

    [Also, I'm not on the internet this weekend so if anyone asks, you haven't seen me and probably I'm spending every spare minute writing, because I too am feeling Stephen's sense of fleeting time.]

  10. Allison Brennan

    Alex, I was thinking the same thing about Tess!! Makes me want to move to the east coast . . .

    GREAT blog, BTW. First chapters (beginnings–probably the first 50 pages) are HARD. I rewrite the first 120-150 pages of my books many, many times. The last 2/3s I general write in one draft, but until I get the first act down I can't move on.

    Another first chapter problem is all action out of context. I need to know (and by "know" I don't mean everything about the character, just enough to know that the character is important and enough that I begin to care what happens to him or her) and showing me character through action is fine, as long as it reveals character. Also, a prologue that should be the first chapter, or a first chapter that should be the prologue, and says CHAPTER ONE because someone doesn't like prologues. Or, a prologue that is out of voice from the rest of the book. Those might all be pet peeves of mine.

    There are some examples of TELLING that work, even at the beginning. The story I linked to the other week, FIRE IN THE HOLE by Elmore Leonard, starts with telling–but it is in the story voice and totally works. And I love how Stephen King sets up some of his books–THE STAND is a bunch of set-up at the beginning, but if you don't have the set-up, you don't care that these are the last people on earth. But what I like is that he goes deep POV in each character and you really feel like you know them. I'll never forget the scene of Frannie burying her father. But you're right in that few authors do it well.

  11. lil Gluckstern

    I will be reading differently from now on, and saving up lessons for when I finally dive in and really write. I think a lot about first sentences: now I have something new. Just a reader for now.

  12. Zoรซ Sharp

    Hi Alex

    Great post on openings, and very apt as I'm just in the opening throes of a new book at the moment. I shall read and inwardly digest!

    Great opening chapters that break the rules? The opener to Don Winslow's THE WINTER OF FRANKIE MACHINE is fascinating. It simply describes a guy getting out of bed in the morning and making his breakfast, with backstory thrown in. Six pages of domestic normality. It shouldn't work, it really shouldn't – but it does. Don Winslow's snappy present-tense narrative grips, together with the fact that he interspersed the eponymous hero's daily routine with snatches of him explaining to his girlfriend WHY he does things the way he does – cooks, makes love, grinds coffee.

    I get the impression, if this were a movie, it would be scenes of a silent Frankie going about his normal daily business, inter-cut with the girlfriend, Donna, telling a friend what he's like in partial voiceover.

    It should be almost boring, but somehow, it's like watching a harmlessly pretty scene with menacing music starting to build over the top. I don't know if this is because I know from the flap copy that Frankie Machine is a retired hitman, and it's all about to go horribly wrong for him…

    On the other hand, the backstory to Mikael Blomkvist that's put into the opening to THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO stopped me being able to get into the book far enough to finish it for AGES. I did, eventually, and enjoyed it and the two books that completed the trilogy, but I really struggled to get past that big lump of backstory at the beginning.

    So, what do I know?

  13. Laura Lane McNeal

    Great post, to the point. These are things I have to remind myself of constantly! I printed your post so now I have you to remind me as well.

  14. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Z, now you've got me curious – will have to look at FRANKIE MACHINE and see if there's something I can pinpoint about what makes it ominous. I love that kind of thing!

    And AB, I don't know how I missed that Leonard link, going to go read it right now.

    Now that you mention it, wish I could find the THE STAND, it's a perfect rainy day to read it again.

  15. tess gerritsen

    Zoe, your observation about too much backstory in Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was exactly what I felt, too. I almost gave up on it. About the first third of the book was telling not showing. It's as if that was just the author warming up before the story finally started. Several editors have told me they would have chopped away that first third.

    I don't know how the book got to be so popular, and I never did pick up book #2.

  16. Kagey

    I love Annie Dillard's description of early drafts — the draft greets the reader with the wrong hand. It starts lumpy and hardens up a few pages or chapters in. The earlier stuff is scaffolding: you needed to erect it to start the work, but it has to come off to see the finished piece clearly.
    And she laments that writing isn't more like painting — where they cover up earlier versions of the work with the latest & greatest. She has lots of great images like this to describe why those early pages are simply "price tags" that must come off. (From The Writing Life)

    I teach composition, and I, too, refer to the "crappy" first draft – very hard to convince students that they need to revise from abundance, not scarcity, to succeed. Sigh.

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