first chapters

I just read Neil Gaiman's address to the University of Arts in Philidelphia and a few things struck me about it because I was just giving writers advice on Saturday about their projects.

And I had a bunch of moments of "Me. This is ME sitting here. Why in God's name would they want to know what I think?"

But they did and then I started to finally relax when I figured out I had helpful stuff to say.

A lot of it was about first chapters. On the fly (well, coalesced from advice I've gotten over the years and books I've read and classes I've taken and all the bazillions of first chapters I've read and written and thrown away...) I came up with two rules for first chapters.

Introduce the Protagonist.

The back flap copy is like an introduction someone might give you about another person. "Hey, you and so-and-so have X in common. Or she is so cool because of Y. I really should introduce you."

The first chapter is that first conversation with the person. You know how disconcerting it is when someone you've just met tells you something really personal (or a lot of somethings; those types of people don't tend to stop at just one item). "Sorry if I seem a bit frazzled OMG my ex-husband is fucking my best friend and I just lost my job and I'm homeless and my children deal drugs out of the back of my car and my mother is in prison and my cat just died. Nice to meet you."

And you sort of gape at them and vow to slap your mutual acquaintance upside the head for introducing you to this nutjob. And also now you've got someone new to avoid.

Same with first chapters. Do we need to know backstory and how they got to this point and that they hate their father and ...and...and all of it? No. It's nearly as disconcerting as hearing about it face-to-face. No. The reader wants to know, justifiably selfishly, only the stuff relating to the story. Because that's why they're there.

Lay out the Story Problem.

Also, the first chapter explains, concisely as possible, the story problem. There are dozens of ways to do this, which all get down to style. In Medias Res vs showing the regular world... I came to the conclusion it's best to show your protagonist in his regular world experiencing the first vestiges of conflict in a way that exemplifies the Story Problem.

Okay, I know, first chapters do other stuff too. Setting. Maybe a little backstory as foundation. Introduces other characters. Gives a few ground rules and lays out parameters for the world you've built. But I only had fifteen minutes. And I think if you do those two first things well, you've already beat the band.


Angie Hodapp said...

Excellent way to think about those opening pages, Betsy. It's strange how so many (many, many, many) developing writers want to open their novels with their character sitting alone in a room thinking (boring), or remembering their past (backstory), or a ruminating about a conversation they had with someone (flashback), or being sad or upset about something (who cares because I don't know you well enough yet to share your pain).

sex scenes at starbucks, said...

Well, I always think of that as the writer telling the story to herself first. It's just knowing it needs to be changed later...