Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Fiction: The First Chapter Crisis

First chapters - those tricky first scenes where everything is touch and go. The only real significance they have is that they’re number one. The last scene gets the honour of being the last scene, even though it’s everything in between that makes the difference. Why should being number one be special?

Television shows, especially ones like CSI, are notorious for first showing some edgy, important scene that drastically affects the outcome. But with an audience that can’t tell the difference between the victim and villain at first glance, that first scene doesn’t have the same amount of punch as it would, say, halfway through the show. The same theory applies for writing. Authors know their characters better then they know themselves. The first chapter might seem to be the perfect time to add in a surprise twist, but it will go over the reader’s head.

Sometimes, the best beginnings begin in the middle. Once you establish characters, a mindset, a setting, or a mood, your readers will be more intrigued with twists and plotlines, and they’ll make more sense too. Laurell K. Hamilton’s books, best known for the Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter series, are infamous for beginning with a droll punch line in the middle of an average day. A funny one-liner can motivate readers to keep the TV off and the book open.

Another thing to know: don’t spend your first chapter getting up to date on things just because you want to start in the middle. Making the beginning go forward to a certain point in one chapter will make things seem rushed. Starting from that certain point and having a vague recollection of the past will work better.

And whoever said that first chapters have to be written first? Plenty of authors begin a book with a scene they are certain will happen, with characters that they have already mapped out, and then work from there. Eventually, they’ll get struck with an idea, phrase, or setting that would captivate an audience from the start and can go back and write the beginning.

Lemony Snicket, author of the Series of Unfortunate Events, once wrote half of the first chapter about the importance of the first line. Being conventional is peachy, but being unconventional and writing original never-seen-before’s are what gets a reader hooked.

Note to self: you can’t fool your readers at the beginning. First chapters need to be real. You might be able to forge around with a scene halfway through your story, if you’re not sure how it’s going to end or who is going to be the bad guy, but the first chapter has to be solid and set a level for the rest of the story to hover around. Consider it the first impression of you to an in-law.

Nearly anything goes in a first chapter as long as it’s fresh material that will keep a reader going like the Energizer bunny. There are, of course, a few things to avoid. Phrases that probably wouldn’t be said in day to day conversations, like ones that “remind” you of what’s already happened (“Remember when we went to the restaurant and the waitress kept flirting with you?”), aren’t a good start. An easier way to work it is to let the readers figure it out for themselves. Drop some hints (“I’m never going back to that restaurant again, not after what that waitress did!”) and work around it.

All in all, first chapters need to hold a teensy bit more significance than just the fact that they’re number one. You know, to keep up appearances.

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