Sunday, February 6, 2011

Emotional impact and prime real estate

Serenissima over at Verla Kay’s boards came up with a really great way of thinking about what you should and should not put in your first chapter. She calls certain places “prime real estate,” ie, places your reader expects certain key information to appear. The things you put on that prime real estate—the characters, problems, settings you choose to introduce here—become a sort of promise from the author of what to expect in this book. This means that if you put it there, it had better be important over the course of your novel. If you point out a gun on the fireplace, it had better go off in your story. If you devote five pages to a character who only disappears, never to be mentioned again, your readers will feel you have broken trust. If you don’t hint at (or blatantly plant) your main concept there, the reader will be confused as to what the main plot is. Things like that. I love that phrase, “prime real estate,” because it really highlights how to set up your key parts of the story right from the beginning.

Lately I’ve been thinking about what makes a book beloved. Is it because it’s well written? Certainly. Is it because the plot is thrilling? To be sure. But I don’t think those are the most important reasons a book becomes beloved. I think it’s because of how it makes you feel. It’s the soul of the book. And most people want a book with a soul they can identify with, a character to be their friend as they navigate all the emotions that come over the course of the story.

Here’s the thing: different kinds of book souls appeal to different kinds of people. You’re not going to write one that will universally appeal to everyone.

However, I do think it’s reasonable to say that readers want to feel sympathetic toward the main character. You might be fascinated by a cruel or insane character and feel compelled to read on, but I’m not convinced that people reread say, Crime and Punishment as lovingly as a book like A Wrinkle in Time. People love Tolstoy’s Levin (shy, somewhat bumbling, but searching for answers), but er, Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov (a deluded axe murderer) not so much. What exactly makes a character sympathetic varies a bit—believability with regards to the reader’s experience, someone who doesn’t lie to the reader, someone who is vulnerable yet acts—those are all things that generally tend to appeal to readers.

Once readers bond with that main character, they want to feel right along with him/her. They want to feel the bite of disappointment, the sting of betrayal, and the victory of rising above challenge. They want to live through that character for just a little while. People don’t care much about a book if they don’t feel much. You’ve got to make them feel. I think that’s why some books, even if they break down in other technical areas, can still be beloved if they succeed in this one area. (Cheryl Klein talks about this a bit.)

Back to the idea of prime real estate. What, then, do you want to do in that all-important first chapter? You want to make your reader bond with your character, right? So think about this. What kind of emotional impact are you greeting your reader with? What emotions are you putting in that spot of prime real estate? If you are getting responses that people are not connecting with your book, take apart your first chapter. For every scene, write down the emotional impact you are trying to achieve. Anger? Resentment? Pity party? Are you trying to create fear or disgust?

Does your reader know your character enough to begin with to take your MC’s side in this?

If you met a person or came upon a situation charged with this emotion, without knowing anything about him/her/it beforehand, would you want to stick around? Or would you decide it was none of your business, and leave?

Think about how you lay in your emotional impact over that first chapter. Spend your real estate investment wisely.

2 comments:

T.D. McFrost said...

Excellent Post Rose. I feel the same way. You have to "ground" (so generic btw) your reader in the story and the first chapter should be a catalyst to the story's plot, or, at least, its themes.

Can't wait for the next post. :D

Ron Smith said...

This is really great advice. Fortunately, my first chapter passed the test. That first chapter should hint at the theme of your book. Nice blog you have!