Tuesday, January 22, 2008

First chapters

I hope you have all had a chance to consider registering your bone marrow to help someone like Luise and Emil. For the curious, 3200 people showed up to be typed and the line was very, very, very long. So many good people in the world--it was very cheering to see how many people wanted to help. Now they're typing the samples. I hope there's a match in there. We find out in six weeks.

Aside from DNA matching I've been thinking a lot about first chapters. Here are two things that have been going through my mind lately that a first chapter needs to accomplish:

Set up the conflict/issues for the entire book.
2. Hook the reader on the character.

1. Setting up the conflict/issues for the whole book. By the end of the first chapter, you need to know a) what your main character wants, and b) his/her plan to get it. You also need to show c) obstacles against that plan. Of course, plans change and desires deepen. They should as the novel progresses. But the seeds should be sown now.

2. Hooking the reader on the character. It’s essential for your readers to form a quick and strong bond with your main character, or they won’t stick around to find out how your MC solves his/her problems. In general, MCs that are easy to bond with may be vulnerable or imperfect, but have at least some part of them that turns outward and wants to move/change/do something. A 15-year-old MC whose sole desire is to contemplate her navel and complain about how everyone is against her might be realistic, but who wants to spend time with her? Harry has a rotten life in the cupboard under the stairs, but he still finds things to be happy about, like getting an extra ice cream at the zoo. The heroine of Shannon Hale’s Book of a Thousand Days is about to be shut in a tower for seven years while her mentally ill mistress languishes on—but she’s excited at seven years of food! See, in a successful first chapter, there’s a silver lining in the problems, as opposed to a poor me attitude.

Another part of forming emotional bonds is to have appropriate stakes. This ties in with #1 of course. You can have a more global set of stakes, like saving the world, but you have to have personal stakes as well. Like Kristin Nelson said on her blog, conflict is personal. What does your MC stand to lose?

The other biggie, I think, is words. Are you using the right voice for your character? Are you close and personal? Introduce us quickly, and keep us right next to the MC. Avoid distancing terms like „the boy“ once we’re supposed to be in his head, and eliminate passive tense. Otherwise, it’s like watching a whole movie shot in wide angle. Without close-ups, it’s hard to get a sense of who is who, and why we should care. Use strong prose—exact nouns and verbs as opposed to weak ones propped up by adjectives or adverbs. Filter everything through your focal character—the setting, the weather, the interactions of others. A good voice is a biased voice. You’re telling your best friend your side of the story. You’re not a reporter trying to be impartial.

Assignment 1: read the first chapter of five different books in your genre, and identify what the character wants, what their plan is, and what stands to stop them. Then do this with your own first chapter.

Assignment 2: remove weak prose and distancing terms from your first chapter.