Monday, March 10, 2008

First Chapter Foibles

Since Cindy talked about prologues, I'll talk about first chapters. I know we played around with opening lines/scenes a few weeks back. We'll deal less with word choice here and more with content.

One of the biggest problems writers have is where and when to start the story. If you're like me, most of your stories emerge as a serious of scenes or conflicts in your mind--rather like a movie trailer with flashes of action, passion, problems. If you're lucky, the opening scene is in one of those flashes.

I'm rarely lucky. More often, I have to ruminate on the feelings those flashes have given me. I have to let what I see as the conflicts percolate, ferment. I have to get into my characters' skins. Then I have to decide where and when to start the story.

I learned that's easier to decide when I listen to the experts:

"You can start a story in any way and at any point and, regrettably, I've read the manuscripts that prove it," writes Dwight V Swain in his Techniques of a Selling Writer. "But that doesn't mean that some beginnings aren't better (read: 'more effective') than others." To Swain, the more effective technique involves change. "To start a story, a change my prove the trigger for continuing consequences. That is, it must set off a chain reaction. Responding to change, your character must do something that brings unanticipated results. He must light a fire he can't put out."

I love that last line: He must light a fire he can't put out.

"The story starts where the elements that will conflict to generate the plot first come together, eyeball to eyeball," says Jacqueline Lichtenberg on her Sime~Gen writer's school pages. "That contact starts the cause-effect chain which is the plot. The story can't start until that has happened. The story is the sequence of changes inside the character caused by his changing internal conflict. It is SPURRED by confrontation with the external conflict. "

Continuing consequences or cause-and-effect chain... it doesn't matter what you call it. But the impetus is the same. Something significant (to the character) and unexpected happens. This is where you start your story.

"Every good story starts at a moment of threat," writes Jack Bickham in his The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes. "Nothing is more threatening than change."

Now, don't be overpowered by the words here: conflict, threat, change. This does not mean you have to start your story with a car going over a cliff. Though that certainly is attention-getting. Threat and change can be small things. They only have to be big to your main character. Whatever the threat or change is must matter deeply to your main character. It can be something as innocuous as a change of schedule. Or a cell-phone mistakenly left at home that day. It can be a decision a character makes, believing it's the right decision. But it turns out to be very, very wrong. (IE: the road to hell is paved with good intentions...)

I like to think of the key ingredient of a first chapter as The Point of No Return. From here, your main character has nowhere to go except into more trouble as he or she tries to deal with the change or threat.

However you do it, what happens in that first chapter forces the rest of the book to unfold. It's critical to remember that because one of the more common errors I see in beginning novelists is to start with a lot of backstory, or a travelogue or paragraphs and paragraphs of setting description. They don't get to the change, the impetus for the conflict, until chapter 3 (and many an agent or editor will tell you that beginning writers' manuscripts can almost all have the first two chapters deleted and be the better for it--for just that reason).

"Fiction looks forward, not backward," Bickham writes. "When you start a story with background information, you point the reader in the wrong direction, and put her off. If she had wanted old news, she would have read yesterday's newspaper."

I've used exactly those techniques in every one of my published novels. In Finders Keepers, Captain Trilby Elliot's routine repairs on her ship are interrupted by the unexpected arrival of an enemy ship...that crashes. And presents her with a wounded survivor. In Gabriel's Ghost, Captain Chaz Bergren's daily fight to survive on a prison planet is interrupted by the unexpected arrival of a former enemy--who she believed to be dead. In An Accidental Goddess, Gillie Davre wakes up in a space station sickbay--three hundred and forty two years later. In Games of Command, Captain Tasha Sebastian learns she's been busted down to the rank of commander and now must work side by side with a former enemy. And in The Down Home Zombie Blues, Commander Jorie Mikkalah arrives on a planet to find her undercover agent is dead and a key piece of equipment is now in the hands of the locals.

Each of my main characters handles the change by starting a fire she can't put out. Every one of these changes put my main characters eye to eye with the cause of the conflict.

Backstory, history and setting are all woven in as the characters act and respond. As they move from one problem to the next. As they take one step forward and two steps back. As conflict builds. Until by the end of the first chapter, the character has nowhere to go but into more trouble.

And the reader has no choice but to turn the page to start Chapter Two.

Take a hard and honest look at the first chapter in your unpublished manuscript or work-in-progress. Have you opened at The Point Of No Return? Or have you started with backstory, or have you left your character too many routes of escape, too many options?



  1. That's funny. When I was reading the first paragraph, I was planning on citing what Jacqueline said. But, then, you did!

  2. Anonymous7:49 PM EDT

    Great post. And I so admire how you're able to sum up the point of no return in one sentence for all your books.

    "And the reader has no choice but to turn the page to start Chapter Two."
    This is good for writers, but sometimes bad for readers. Like when it's daylight savings time and you know you're going to lose an hour of sleep and you know you shouldn't have glanced at the first page of that book because now you have to know what happens and now its already 11:30....


  3. Linnea:

    Yes, you've described exactly WHY editors in a hurry will force a writer to add a prolog to a story that is of a novel form that does not use the prolog/epilog structure.

    A novel (and this can happen to a writer at any stage of their career) which has failed its structural paradigm is often patched with a prolog.

    One of the most common ways this happens is when a novel is "fixed" by deleting those first two or three chapters you mentioned.

    Marion Zimmer Bradley often called that the author's throat clearing and pencil sharpening, a form of procrastination.

    But just deleting those chapters leaves you with a big conceptual hole in the middle of the narrative -- character motivation is usually what takes the biggest hit.

    So then the purchasing editor demands you paste on a prolog -- or maybe from experience you do it yourself.

    The result of that pasting-on (rather than what Cindy was talking about - actually structuring the book around a prolog from the idea onwards) is a book that does not start with CHANGE.

    And so, as we've seen in the answers to Cindy's post, readers learn the hard way to just skip anything labeled prolog.

    I'm going to talk about prologs and spoilers in my post today, but I wanted to contrast this with what I've been learning about screenwriting.

    Blake Snyder (SAVE THE CAT GOES TO THE MOVIES!) calls that prelude or prolog to the CHANGE point in a film script "laying pipe". The first few pages of a script should open showing the character in their pre-change "normal" state.

    A good example is the opening of the Superman movie with Clark walking down the street through a series of mini-disasters.

    Somone suggested we discuss the difference between SF and Fantasy -- and I want to get into that one of these weeks because I have a lot to say about it. The BEGINNING (the application of the formula for finding the conflict)of the SF story takes you from the HERE AND NOW to the THERE AND THEN, and that journey is what signifies it is SF.

    The Fantasy opening gives you no clue at all how to get from here and now to there and then.

    Then we have the hybrids - Time Travel Romance for example - which gives you some hand-waving argument (a visit to stonehenge; a wish) and plops you in the past, never mentioning, examining, or unraveling the mechanism of how you got there. Is that fantasy or SF?

    So while it is always true in all genres that story begins where the conflict begins -- the forms, the ingredients, and how to mix, match, and blend those ingredients are myriad.

    Once you've gained real proficiency in applying the formula for finding the conflicting ELEMENTS that generate the plot, you will be able to penetrate even the most symbolic or obtuse openings of the classics to find that conflict.

    Take MZB's HERITAGE OF HASTUR for example (runner-up for the Hugo). It opens with a Comyn party riding to the top of the hill, looking down on Thendara, and seeing Comyn Castle and the Terran Trade tower facing each other.

    The HERITAGE that is Hastur is actually symbolized by those towers co-existing and it all is worked out in detail throughout the novel.

    So finding your story's opening scene or image may mean finding the concrete objects that symbolize an abstract idea which is to be challenged in the novel.

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg