Six impossible things

Fixing Chapter One, part one

I recently read a writing-advice column that argued that first chapters were always and necessarily boring. The column-writer never did explain why, if that were true, anyone would ever read the first chapter, or stick with a book long enough for it to get interesting, but he did give a couple of reasons why he thought this: because in the first chapter, the reader doesn’t care about the hero, because the action is relatively weak and/or meaningless, because there’s too much telling and too much backstory.

The solutions provided were the same old tired ones: start with “strong action” (what’s that supposed to be?), make the backstory unique and fascinating (how?), make the character interesting (again, how?). There’s just one problem: as described, these “solutions” don’t work, because they are each addressing a specific problem area that may not be a problem in any one particular story.

The column-writer was entirely correct in saying that the first chapter is vitally important and deserves a lot of attention. I will go so far as to say that a boring first chapter is a major flaw that must be addressed. I just wouldn’t go about writing it – or fixing it – the way he recommended. Which got me thinking about what I would do…which led me to start this series of posts.

Let’s start by considering why Chapter One is so important. 99.9% of writing-advice books and blogs on the subject will tell you that Chapter One is important because Chapter One is where you sell the editor and hook the reader. I disagree. Oh, selling the editor and hooking the reader happen in Chapter One, but that’s not what makes Chapter One vitally important.

What makes Chapter One important is that it lays the foundation on which you build the rest of the story.

Take another look at the three symptoms that writing column mentioned: 1) The reader doesn’t care about the character, 2) The action is weak and/or meaningless, and 3) There’s too much telling and backstory. Basically, this means that there is something wrong with one or more of the three basic areas of storytelling: 1) the characterization, 2) the plot, or 3) the background/backstory. Getting one of these wrong at the start of the story is like getting the cement blocks in the foundation of a house laid in crooked or uneven or out of true. If the error is too big, the house won’t stand up; if it’s not so big, the house will stand up, but it will be crooked or the floors won’t be level or there will be other problems.

Depending on what kind of writer you are, you have several choices regarding Chapter One: 1) You can write it and rewrite it until you are really, really sure you have it right (because you are the kind of writer who can’t write the rest of the story until you are absolutely sure the foundation is all there); 2) You can write something that you think is right, continue on, and periodically come back and fiddle with it as the story progresses and you realize that this or that bit is out of whack (because you are the kind of writer who can revise the early bits without getting stuck in an eternal-revisions loop, and you need to have more of the story written before you know what you need in Chapter One); 3) You can write a Chapter One and leave it alone until the whole story is finished, then come back and revise it when you really know what it needs; or 4) You can write a chapter that you are sure is right, finish the book, and then delete the first chapter or two because they have turned out to be scaffolding – stuff you needed to write in order to get started, but not stuff that actually needs to be in the finished story.

If you have a scaffolding-type process, the only difference between what you do and what I’m advising for everybody else is, you need to take down the scaffolding first. That is, finish the story, erase the scaffolding chapters (or snip them and put them in some other file, if you aren’t brave or think you may need bits of them later), renumber your chapters, and then start in on the stuff below. There is no point in analyzing your first chapter if you are going to end up opening with Chapter Three. (And you would be amazed by the number of people who don’t think of this, and spend weeks or months polishing their “Chapter One” before it dawns on them that it is wasted effort.)

So you have a real Chapter One and you are ready to revise. The first think I’d do is look at the rest of the story. If the rest of the story isn’t written yet, write it. This helps on two counts: first, it allows you to look at the first chapter in context (some of the stuff you thought had to be in Chapter One may be obviously unnecessary once the whole story is written, or some of the stuff you were expecting to cut may turn out to be vital); second, writing the rest of the story gives you a novel’s worth of writing practice, so that when you come back to fix Chapter One, you will have more skills and be better able to implement whatever fixes you decide are needed.

If you are a #1-type writer – if you had to get Chapter One absolutely perfect before you went on to finish the rest of the book, fine. Trust me, by the time you finish an entire novel, Chapter One won’t look nearly so perfect any more, and you will find plenty of things to fix. Even if it is your nineteenth or twentieth novel.

Back to revising Chapter One. The first thing you need to know is that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to a problematic first chapter, because whether you start with a battle, a tense political confrontation, an impossible-love-at-first-sight moment, or a murder, there are going to be readers who find the chapter boring, simply because you are signaling a kind of story that they are not particularly interested in reading. An “interesting” character is only going to be interesting to some readers; ditto the “fascinating and unique” backstory.

What you really don’t want to do is write a chapter that will alienate the readers who will like this kind of story. So you begin by looking at the whole story because context is important. Things like who the main character is and what the viewpoint is and what sort of story the author is telling and where it is going all affect what you can and cannot pull off in Chapter One.

So the first question is: Does Chapter One fit the rest of the story, or does it give a false impression of what the story is and where it is going? Could you just lop it off and open with Chapter Two? (It is useful to ask this even if you think you are not a #4-type writer; unintentional scaffolding happens at least once to nearly everybody.) Once you are clear about what kind of story you have in hand, you can look for – and hopefully address – some of the other specific problems, but you address them in whatever way fits the story you are telling.

Next post, I am going to start going through those three specific problem areas, one at a time.

  1. What makes Chapter One important is that it lays the foundation on which you build the rest of the story.

    This is a *much* more useful way to think about opening chapters than the usual “hook them” approach.

    (I’m assuming that it’s conceivable that there is a fifth type of writer, who actually does get Chapter One right on the first try, but you’re omitting them because they don’t need to know how to fix it. 😉 )

  2. I keep coming back to Chapter One of the thing I’m supposedly working on, because I keep on finding out more about the protagonist. Which is not a bad thing. But then after I’ve revised Chapter One, I have work forward through the next several chapters, revising things he does and says and making him consistent, and get stuck where I was stuck before, in about Chapter Six where it’s not a question of character, it’s a question of where in HELL is the plot going to go next. Which is going to depend upon revising a secondary character who’s going to be pivotal but about whom I know almost nothing. Aaaaargh.

  3. Patricia, what about #5?

    5) Do not write chapter one until you know what will go in it.

    When writing a speech, some people save the opening for last.

  4. This is helpful – Usually I’d say I’m a type 2 writer, but I’ve done the scaffolding thing myself a time or two. First chapters are so important, so it’s always a good idea to really sit down and analyze it.

  5. My rule: don’t do stupid things in Chapter 1.

    Trust your readers – they do not need more than a word or two of backstory – if ANY – what they need is to come in where there is conflict and want to know why, and what’s next. When I read a story that explains anything, I’m out of there. I keep getting books, especially from older gentlemen who take up writing in retirement, that detail four chapters of their hero’s life, from birth to Marine-hood in Afghanistan, making me wonder just where the story is.

    Drop the absolutely necessary backstory bits in just-in-time.

    And, for Heaven’s sake, don’t describe your character – that stops me in my tracks AND interferes with me making a character look more like ME, which is what writers should want from readers: identification. The tiniest taste – the intriguing detail.

    Don’t go lush into the setting – until I want more. Just enough so I don’t think I’m in the Grand Canyon when I’m in an airplane.

    The time will come when the reader is hungry for more – that’s the time to drag out the main course.

    I don’t know what number you’d call me, maybe the combination platter? Get something functional in there, tweak as necessary, throw in the tiniest of prologues if there is a significant time or character shift, don’t use adjectives until later (or use bunches of them, intending to cut most of them out later). Just get me curious. Give me a protagonist with a problem weighty enough that I will read the next paragraph.

    Oh, and make sure, when you’re done, that the beginning promises the end – and the end fulfills the beginning’s promise – like a well-designed set of bookends. As a writer, you get to go back and make all these things happen even if you don’t start with them in place.

    Easy, right?

    • This is mostly good advice, but I have to quibble with the “never describe your character” part. I’m a very visual thinker, and I love it when an author has lots of physical description so I know just how to picture the character. I understand that minimal description is what some people prefer, but it doesn’t work for everybody.

      • Best advice: read other people’s advice – discard everything that doesn’t work for you.

        I think it depends, too, on whether the writer is aiming for identification with a character (empathy) or just a character you love to view (sympathy). The aims are different – of course the methods will be different.

        It drives some people crazy when I use italics for direct thoughts – in the actual words the character would think; and still have plenty of other thoughts in a more distant third person. Others have commented on how tight my pov is, and how they can ‘see out the character’s eyes.’ The first set probably won’t read my work – just as I can’t read some authors’ work. There’s plenty for everyone.

        All I ask is that the effect be deliberate and controlled by the writer, whether it is craft or genius. So it’s smooth to the reader.

        They tell you to write the book you want to read, and hope there are others out there like you. Works for me.

  6. The notion that one can always go back and change the beginning is a dangerous one. It can lead you into a loop of endless rewriting.

    In general, a problematic set of circumstances is set up in the early part of the story, to which the author then needs to find a solution. What distinguishes laziness (“This is too hard to write—I’ll just go back and change chapter one”) from a genuine need to rewrite? How can one tell?

  7. I’m looking forward to this series as I always have trouble with beginnings. And in fact, I just made a MAJOR change to the worldbuilding of my WIP that means I pretty much need to start over. I think it’s worth it, in the end, but it’s a little daunting to realize I have to rethink all of my characters because of this and everything I’ve written.

  8. Wolf Lahti,

    In my case, the story develops and changes as I write it. While I may have a good foundation for the walls, I may forget to rough in some of the utilities that power/affect the interior. Or realize that I have run two of the same utilities by different names. Or realize I need a basement for the house instead of a slab-on-grade. Yes, I do create an outline before starting, but stories, like houses, don’t always go according to plan. I have yet to see an as-built blueprint 100% match a construction blueprint. (and that’s part of my day job. so I see a fair number of large and small buildings plans.)

  9. Perhaps because I’ve read, and even written fanfic, though I’ve seen in in romance and urban fantasy too, I’ve gotten very sensitive to very detailed descriptions of the lead’s appearance and clothing. If they get described like a model about to hit the walkway in a story classed differently, it’s a very bad sign. I want to know about them and their problems, not the problem of having hair that’s just too dark and long. I really don’t care about their appearance unless it affects the story, like Miles’ height does in Ms. Bujold’s books. I very much prefer appearance to be described in bits and pieces.

    I don’t usually have much trouble with my first chapters as the starting scene with tension and problems is usually part of the core concept. For fanfic, I started after the source ending, because they left huge loose ends that made great starting problems.(little things like mass death and escape)

    I’m firmly in the type 3 group, probably because my longer works came out of NaNo and I did not have the time to go back and endlessly fidget. I reread the last few paragraphs to see where I left off and may fix a typo, but the first chapter is left in the dust until I’m done.

    • I tend to begin with a setting, the place where the initial action is taking place, and (so to speak) zoom in on the character, at which point I can describe him in a sentence or two and then fade into tight-third.

  10. “What makes Chapter One important is that it lays the foundation on which you build the rest of the story.”

    This is interesting in light of my own process, which usually involves starting somewhere in the middle of the story, then backtracking til I locate that foundation (tho I hadn’t thought of it in those terms before). So the first scene is typically one of the last that I write. Apparently I gather the bricks, nail up the trusses, and draft the blueprints before I finalize the foundation…. cuz that foundation has to be built to match and support the rest.

  11. What makes an opening chapter important is that if you don’t successfully launch the story you’ve lost the reader. When a reader picks up your story he wants you to succeed, but he has no commitment to finishing the story yet. You’ve got to husband that small initial stock of reader commitment until you have enough to spend on accomplishing significant things.

    It’s important to realize that what you can and must do in a first chapter is different than what you can do in later chapters. You don’t just need a good chapter here, you need a good opening chapter, and that’s very different animal. In the middle of the story you can challenge the reader, frustrate him, mystify him, even make him mad at you. At the start of a story you have to draw him in and bring him up to speed, all the while keeping an eye on the gas gauge because unless you’re writing for already devoted fans you’re starting this trip on fumes.

    What do I think helps? I think first of all simple and clear prose. I think simplicity is more important than hooking in openings, because if a reader makes it through a couple of chapters without any perceived effort you’re bound to be in good shape. Later on you can go all Bulwer-Lytton if you need to, but not here.

    The other thing that helps is to give the protagonist something to accomplish that the reader can follow without a major briefing. I call this a bootstrapping problem. The problem with “meaningless” action isn’t that it’s meaningless, it’s that you can’t afford the explanations yet. So you need something to do in your opening that is self-explanatory. One bonus of using a bootstrapping problem that when you throw the reader a narrative lifeline you don’t have to explain everything to him right away. Readers can tolerate a few unanswered questions as long as their predominant reaction to your chapter isn’t mystification.

    Ending a chapter promptly can be a big help. It’s surprising how often MS openings are improved by simply inserting a chapter break. When something gets resolved, end the chapter. Readers expect action to normally rise in a chapter, so when something gets resolved and the chapter keeps going it feels like you’ve lost your way. Ending the chapter at a conclusive point makes the reader feel like he’s accomplished something.

    Aside from that, try do your best writing in an opening, because openings are unforgiving. And try to give it some balance; don’t make it all action, all dialog, all inner monologue, or all scene painting. Variety makes the task of reading lighter, and lightness is a big help here.

    So here’s a pattern that works pretty well for launching a story. Give a character (the protag usually) a bootstrapping problem. It doesn’t even have to be something all that interesting, so long as you write as cleanly as possible. In the course of solving the bootstrapping problem the inciting incident occurs. You don’t have to explain it in full, the reader just has to know it’s something that must be dealt with. Finish (or abandon for now) the bootstrapping task, close the chapter, and that leaves the reader at the beginning of Chapter 2 with the inciting incident already on the table. Chapter beginnings are a good place to handle narrative housekeeping, so you can afford to spoon feed the reader a little exposition here. I’m not saying this is the only way to do it, but if you’re stuck on how to start your story, it’s a pretty simple one.

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