The Dreaded First Chapter
So who else out there is struggling with their first chapter? I'm
learning from my local critique group, friends, family, and the
critiques on Book Country just how difficult it can be to develop the
right blend of action, setting, sympathetic main character, and world
building in a fantasy setting.
For those of you who have
written several different genres, do you notice anything different in
setting up the first chapter in your fantasy books than others? Are
there any tricks of the trade that you can share with us?
The first chapter is no different from the opening of any other scene. You want to make sure the reader knows who they are, where they are in time and space, and what's going on. That gives them context for the action. You want the reader to be aware of the protagonist's scene-goal so they will know when things begin to go wrong without your having to tell them—just as the protagonist does. That will handle the objections you're getting that the reader doesn't know enough background. You don't ladle in explanation for that, though, you make the reader know those things through context.
Always remember that the reader comes to us to be entertained, not informed. So every time you find yourself "explaining" you're in lecture mode and informing.
Of most importance, the place to learn writing technique is not from people who cannot sell their own work, regularly. That goes for me, and pretty much everyone on most writer's interest sites. We can give you, "This worked for me—or didn't," feedback, and that's invaluable. What we can't give you is how to fix the work to make an acquiring editor smile. If we could, we would be selling our own writing, and too busy to spend time here.
So take the reader's comments to mean that the words didn't keep their eyes glued on the page, as they should, and work to fix that with greater knowledge, not reader suggestions. A camel is said to be a horse designed by a committee, after all. If you want to know what, from a publisher's POV, keeps a reader turning pages, go to the pros. You know that their advice works for at least them.
A great place to begin is at the library with Jack Bickham's, Scene and structure, or on Amazon with Dwight Swain's, Techniques of the Selling Writer. And Bickham is free and in most public library systems.
You can sample some of what they have to say with this article: http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/articles/writing-the-perfect-scene/
Hope this helps.
Hi David--thanks for your post. I absolutely agree that first chapters are the most daunting thing.
Personally, I think it's best to start the first chapter in scene--especially if you are workshopping chapters and adding to your MS on BC as you write. I say that because I think that immediacy in the first chapter will help you to get BC community members to keep reading, and that's important for getting feedback on the site. Summarizing or infodumping isn't necessarily always a bad thing in fiction, but it's trickier to get people to respond to it.
That said, what's the harm in trying things a few different ways? There are really very few hard and fast rules about fiction writing.
In the meantime, have you ever thought about one afternoon just sitting down and writing down an infodump for yourself? I do this from time to time, because it satisfies the urge to figure out the backstory, the characters' histories, the way their world works, and once you've done that "thinking on the page," you can get back to the scene crafting without a lot of explaining drifting into your paragraphs.You can pick and choose what details you want to add to your scene, and you'll have your ideas written down and saved for future use.
When I do this, I call it a "novel dossier." It's all the metadata for the novel, and it's an enormously helpful and fun part of the writing process, even if no one ever sees it.
Re: what @Jay writes above--great book recommendations! But don't underestimate BC readers, no matter what their publication experience is. Your beta-readers will undoubtedly give you feedback that you can use on your WIP. It all adds up to getting the book to its best place.
Happy writing, and keep us posted on how you work this out.
Other BC members--how have you dealt with this issue of "the dreaded first chapter"?
That's some good advice in both posts. Thanks very much.
I've educated myself on scenes and sequels. Jim Butcher's blog did a pretty good job describing it in easy terms, so I followed that advice in writing the book. Actually, I've got a complete novel, it's simply a matter of getting feedback from others, tearing it apart, and building it back up.
Part of my problem is that I don't like the new chapter that I've written for the beginning of the book. Or, maybe I should say I don't like it as much as the old first chapter (which became chapter two). My critique group likes the new material, but I don't think it's as strong a beginning.
I think I may just set it aside for a week and then see if I have a brainstorm for a better way to get everything I need to put my fantasy setting in the proper time and space. I need to let the reader know that we're not on Planet Earth, in some alternate fantasy realm. The only way I can think to do that is to provide some signal to make things obvious, like a second moon in the sky, weird animals, or purple grass. But I don't want to go too far overboard. I want something new, yet familiar to the reader.
• My critique group likes the new material.
And their qualifications for telling you how the story should be written are...
I don't mean that as an insult. My point is that in general, when you ask readers for an opinion they can say, "I like it," or "I hate it," etc. But when you ask a writer you get, "This is how I would have written that." So given that you are in a writers group, their state of knowledge matters a great deal. Someone with less knowledge than you will suggest things that will drop the level of writing, and do so in all sincerity. If you have a critique group that includes Stephen King, or Amy Tan, of course, you're in luck.
So, I'd say to go with your gut, but at the same time, try to figure out why the words didn't captivate the reader to the point where they made no comment.
Some check off points:
Does the reader know where they are, whose skin they're wearing, and what's going on before the end of the first page, so as to have context for the actions taken? If that's lacking that usually triggers a request for more background data on the character's history from people who don't themselves, know to include the points above.
Are readers aware of the protagonist's scene-goal quickly, so as to focus them on what the protagonist is trying to accomplish, in parallel with that character?
Does something interfere with that goal quickly, and steadily worsen until disaster ends the scene and begins the sequel?
You might also post that first chapter here, for some additional feedback.
I understand. Your point is well-taken. Sadly, Mr. King is not in my critique group, and I don't think he's going to extend an invitation to visit him on Casey Key here in Florida. So, I'm trying to make the best with what's available. That's why this site, and hearing advice from people who've been there, done that, helps immensely.
If anyone here has the time, here is the link to the first two chapters:
Thanks for your help.
In my opinion, you start with action and then explain later.
The infodumping can be used as a breather for the reader after a scene where a
lot has occurred. Details on who the people are, their background, why the
action is happening can all wait. You want to hook the reader in the first
chapter, and there is nothing more boring than info dumping, but a first
chapter where something is happening will keep the reader around to find out the
answers to these questions.
You know, I think it really depends on the reader on whether
they are annoyed and want more information. When I read, if the story is
lacking details, my mind automatically fills in the picture. I don’t need the
author to give me a paint by numbers in order to understand what is happening.
Love Lucy’s tactic of infodumping for yourself! Writing out
the backstory and character histories will probably help with incorporating
these aspects in more naturally. “Novel dossier”…nice
In regards to the feedback you get on BC and from your
writing group, I wouldn’t always change things based on what they offer. If there are
several people making the same point, then definitely consider revising that
aspect of your story, but if it is one or two people, then ignore it.
If you can’t figure out how to present your first chapter,
go open up books in the same genre and read the first few pages. That usually
helps me to get grounded and realize what I feel is necessary to incorporate
into my own work.
--edited by Toni Smalley on 9/18/2013, 6:37 PM--