Having spent the weekend being very thoroughly distracted by my 40th college reunion (at which they gave me a Distinguished Alumni Achievement Award, much to my astonishment [and thank you to everyone who worked on that]), I didn’t have a lot prepared for today’s blog. So I thought I would talk a bit about writing the stuff that comes after Chapter One.
There are a great many different things that can be done in the early part of any novel, and there is seldom room to do all of them at once. As I have pointed out several times, one often can’t open a story as it needs to be opened while still doing all of the possible jobs in all of the possible areas in Chapter One. So the writer starts with a big action scene that sets up the plot, but at the expense of some deeper character development. Or the writer opens by introducing characters and the moody setting, at the expense of giving the reader a clear vision of the plot.
Which means that when you get to writing Chapter Two, there are often some pieces of the setup that are missing. This means that when one is writing Chapter Two, one has to look in both directions: backward to the previous chapter, to fill in any key bits that had to be left out, and forward to the next chapter(s) and the rest of the story.
If the story you are telling starts in such a way as to provide a good solid foundation in all of the main storytelling elements – if you managed to introduce the characters and get the reader a good way toward caring for them, establish the setting and enough of the backstory to be intriguing, and get the plot rolling in the right direction, however slowly – then what you have to do in the next couple of chapters is keep things moving. Basically, you have all your plates in the air; now you have to keep juggling (while perhaps adding another plate to the mix from time to time).
If you didn’t manage to get every single one of the essentials into Chapter One – say, the story needed to start in medias res with the hero in the middle of a tense naval battle, which left you with little characterization and even less backstory – then Chapter Two is where you introduce those missing elements. In this case, Chapter Two is doing some of the leftover jobs from Chapter One…but, because you’re already in Chapter Two, it also has to move everything forward.
Pacing is important here, and it depends a lot on what you did in Chapter One. If One was slam-bang action, you probably want to give the reader a little breathing space before you head into the next action sequence, but you don’t want things to slow down so much that the reader gets bored and moves on to another book. If One was more of a long, slow build, then Two might be a good spot for a shock or surprise or some sudden action, or you might want to build tension even higher with some more mysterious hints, but you don’t want the shock to be so great it gives the reader whiplash, or the tension to crank so high the reader leaves.
Reader need to know more than just “what happens next;” they also need to know who and how and why and where. In some stories “what happens next” is less important than who and why; in others, “what happens” is absolutely the key thing, and the rest is secondary. This doesn’t mean you can leave out the who, how, why, and where if you are writing the latter sort of story. It just means you won’t have to spend quite as much time on it.
It’s a balancing act, and how you balance depends on where you were in Chapter One and where you are heading for in Chapter Three and parts farther on. A character-centered story will need more characterization, and probably less physical action, than an action-focused adventure story. The difficulty here is in being sure of what kind of story it is – it is surprisingly easy to mistake a story about space mercenaries for something strictly action-adventure, when it’s actually a character-centered study of the relationships of a bunch of people who happen to be space mercenaries. If you aren’t sure of the difference, take a look at Lois Bujold’s work; in spite of an assortment of wars and dangerous missions and mysteries, they’re all fundamentally character-centered stories.
Looking forward, you want to think about both what’s coming up immediately in the next scene and/or in Chapter Three, and about where you are trying to get to in the longer run (say, Chapter Ten or Fourteen, or even the ultimate climax of the story). If you know the next scene or the next turning point, that’s usually enough to go on with, but if you do know what’s coming in the long run, it is frequently easier to plant the first mention of the antique goldfish bowl on the mantelpiece here, instead of waiting eight or nine chapters and only mentioning it a few pages before the hero needs to fling it through the picture window to escape the poison gas bomb.
For a lot of writers, the early chapters are one of the easiest and most fun parts (after they get past Chapter One), because you can just keep throwing in cool bits for a while without paying too much attention to how they will eventually fit together. (Of course, if you do it that way, you will probably need quite a bit of revision to make sure everything does fit in the long run, but if that’s how you work…well, you are not alone.) For a lot of other writers, the early chapters are acutely painful, and they don’t hit their stride until all of the basics have been established or introduced. About all I can say to this lot is that all writers have some point that is acutely painful, and at least you are getting yours out of the way early on.