Six impossible things

Fixing Chapter One: Putting it all together

Whether you end up revising Chapter One every few scenes or wait until you have a complete draft to revise it (or even to write it), it usually helps to think a little about the things that you want the chapter to do. First and foremost, of course, is to get your readers interested enough to keep going, but despite all the emphasis on “hooking” readers in the first scene, page, paragraph, or sentence, this isn’t actually clear enough to be helpful in most cases. It doesn’t tell you, for instance, whether it is most important to this particular story to get the reader interested in the plot, make them fall in love with your character, establish the main themes of the story, present an intriguing idea, or build up a fascinating background.

Ideally, of course, one would do all of it at once, probably in the first couple of sentences. Here’s the problem: you can almost never actually achieve that. Sometimes it’s a matter of not quite having enough skill to cram in one more thing; other times, the story itself is incompatible with getting one or more of the basic elements in early on.

So you have to set priorities – and those priorities will not be the same for every story. This is why all those people who advocate starting with action or dialog or the hero in trouble are plain old flat-out wrong: because any of those things will work for some stories, but not one of them will work for every story. Opening Pride and Prejudice with an exciting action scene – say, Mr. Darcy foiling a bunch of footpads who attempt to rob him on his way to Netherfield Park – would be totally wrong for the book. Starting The Hunt for Red October with a scene where the pregnant wife of the defecting ship commander worries about his possible infidelity would likewise be totally wrong for that book.

You can’t set the right priorities for your particular story without actually looking at the story and considering what you wanted to do and what you have actually done (which are often not quite the same thing). After all, you can’t fix something until you know what’s wrong with it. Adding a bunch of new background is not going to help if the problem is that your readers really need to like your main character, and making the main character more likeable is not going to help if the problem is that it is totally unclear where and when the story is taking place.

The writer therefore needs to consider what thing or things most need to be done in this particular Chapter One. As I have been saying, every element of storytelling does one or more particular jobs in Chapter One; the question is, which of those jobs is most important to this story? The second question is, which element would, if changed, have the greatest impact on the way the reader sees the rest of the story?

If you know or suspect that you have problems (in Chapter One or elsewhere) that you cannot see, there are three basic approaches:

First, you can find some readers whose judgment you trust and get them to tell you what things they found confusing, where they lost interest, whether they felt as if something was missing. This is probably one of the most common, though it is hard to find good critique. Even a casual reader’s input can be useful, however, if one is willing to think about it and puzzle out why they stalled dead in the middle of the second scene, or took an intense dislike to the character who is supposed to become the romantic interest. It is up to you whether you want to work really hard at finding or training top-notch critiquers, or work really hard at ferreting out what a less-articulate critiquer’s comments are pointing at. Either way, you will end up working a lot harder at getting and understanding the crit than most people realize.

Second, you can deliberately write several different versions of each scene or chapter that you think is problematic, changing different things each time, set them aside for a few days or weeks, and then come back and compare them; some folks find that there isn’t as much difference as they thought, while others find that it is suddenly blindingly obvious which is the “right” Chapter One. This method is a lot of work, but the work is all writing work, which appeals to some folks more than trying to puzzle out what someone else’s comments are really telling you.

The third approach is to train your own ability to spot problems and/or decide what to do about them. The best way I know to do this is to critique other people’s work; this not only gives you practice in seeing problems (which is often much easier when it’s not your stuff), it gives you practice in articulating them in ways that are useful to other writers (which can help with explaining to your own beta readers what kinds of comments you will find useful). The catch here is that some folks already have a ferocious Inner Editor that gets in the way of their writing, and they do not want to train that Editor to spot even more things to fix. Sometimes, people can get around this by drawing strict mental lines around the things the Internal Editor is permitted to look at during the writing stage, and insisting that everything else be left for the revision phase.

Finally, it is important to remember not to overstuff Chapter One just so you can get one more story element into it. Folks who have been following these posts will have noticed that I keep mentioning that sometimes the writer can’t get this or that element into Chapter One, because the story just doesn’t allow for it. Some things are just incompatible. When this happens, what you do is try to make the stuff you are putting in – the characterization or the opening plot elements or the early bits of backstory – so compelling and interesting that it doesn’t matter that you couldn’t fit one of them into Chapter One.

  1. At one point I made a list of all the ways to start a scene I could find. After seven pages of this, I gave up – and note that I don’t check that list very often (which reminds me…).

    I think the whole point is to ask questions – and answer them, but leave more questions, so the reader has to read just a little further – but without turning the reader off. It doesn’t matter which ones you start with quite as much as the sense of ‘this is going somewhere’ and ‘I like/am intrigued so far.’

    I do have a place to leave list of unanswered questions in my scene template – and make sure I have answered a few and left a few more in each scene. Doing it deliberately reminds me to not just polish little gems.

    So much to do, so much to remember – thanks for the reviews. The good part is that you can add, in revision, whatever you neglected to put in in the beginning – and no reader will be the wiser. And that there is probably more than one way to write every scene – as long as everything needed to tell the story eventually gets in there.

    The rest IS up to Art, practice, everything you’ve ever read in your life, and a bit of luck. And readers, starting with the ones who do tell you what they think. Every story I’ve ever read is not perfect – but comes in solidly on the side of more perfect than not.

    I have your book on writing, and have bookmarked this series to come back to – I’m almost at the end of Book 1 of the Pride’s Children (unintended) trilogy, and I know I have lots of work to do even though it is so very perfect already (writer’s in-joke).

  2. Critique partners are a must! Not only does it help you hone your own skills as you critique their work, but it gets another set of eyes on yours. My stories wouldn’t be the same without it!

  3. By coincidence, I am now struggling with chapter 11 of my current WIP. It’s the middle chapter where the old plans for solving the story problem have gone bust and my protagonist needs to devise a new plan. The troubles I’m having are not exactly those of Chapter 1 – the characters and setting are already established (or had better be…) but there are similarities.

    I do need to introduce the new information about the villains’ plans that have just come into the protagonist’s hands, and I do need to re-start the plot, or at least re-launch it in its new direction. I’m already starting a third rewrite of the chapter, which a lot for me during a first draft. It’s the sort of trouble I normally have only with Chapters One – and even then only sometimes.

    I’m thinking of trying a variant of the “write multiple versions” technique: Write multiple versions in outline or synopsis form. It’s mostly a problem of keeping the plot on track, with a side order of working in relevations, so I believe I could get away with that.

    But in a lot of ways, getting over this hump feels even harder than writing a good Chapter One.

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