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.
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?????)
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.