The first chapter of a novel needs to do some heavy lifting to start the story. Once you realize that what needs to be done follows a fairly clear format, it makes light work of the task.
But what's essential for a story to start in the space between you and the reader?
In the video with this blog, you'll find a clip from a lesson with Justin Cronin in which he describes the basic layout as:
"There's nothing wrong with just flat out declaring this information at the start of a narrative. I find that people are enormously reluctant to do this. I am no longer so reluctant." Justin Cronin.
Justin Cronin struggled with understanding how stories work, until he found a guide on writing screenplays which explained there are two big plot points in a story.
The first is the moment of disruption and the second is its match towards the back end of the story - a disruption via is an event which takes the story towards the possibility of an outcome. In a way, a story could be seen as :
The first disruption - when it occurs - signals the beginning of the story.
In a story, the characters become more certain about something before the end. They begin with a problem which is usually fathomed by the end, as Cronin says 'knowledge and certainty' has flowed into the characters.
Where are we - seems to me to be a base you will want to cover in the first chapter as does who we are as a minimum. But you'll want to establish one or two more things in a first chapter:
- the problem with the status quo
And within the first chapter or chapters, not necessarily the first, but as close as possible;
- the disruption (which changes things, ideally which changes everything.)
Let's compare some famous works to see what information they're dropping in their first chapters and in what order.
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine.
Let's begin with this bestselling novel by Gail Honeyman. It's achieved a very wide appeal. The facts are presented in a straightforward voice, the first-person narrative is achieved with a wry, slightly snobbish dry tone of voice (almost elderly and for those in the tone of voice reminds me of Hyacinth Bucket from the British TV sitcom 'Keeping Up Appearances'. It's defensive, immediately, thus we have the two key aspects of a first-person narrative delivered at speed - attitude and self-deception. (how I defend myself against the world and the falsehood I maintain to stay safe.) A gap between the stance and reality is opened quickly to effect the intrigue which draws a reader into a first-person novel. We learn Eleanor presents herself, and consider herself 'superior' while the reality of her life is lowly. The distance between reality and truth allows for dramatic irony in close character-driven fiction.
'When people ask me what I do - taxi drivers, dental hygienists - I tell them I work in an office. In almost nine years, no one’s ever asked what kind of office or what sort of job I do there. I can’t decide whether that’s because I fit perfectly with their idea of what an office worker looks like, or whether…'
Para 1 - who we are - 'privacy' behind the veneer of the job
Para 2 - who we are - the status quo, age and education at odds with position (attitude per first-person narrative)
Para 3 - principle story setting and her place within (where we are)
Para 4- her life routine at work
Para 5 - her life routine at home
Para 6- evenings (and the conversations with Mummy on Wednesday)
Para 7 - the dysfunctional weekend and heavy drinking
Para 8 - privacy masks the apparent problem of loneliness 'I do exist, don’t I? It often feels as if I’m not here, that I’m a figment of my own imagination.'
Para 9 - coping strategy is Monday to Friday work with its cast (who we are)
Middle section - backstory shows the 'lie' via attention-seeking with doctor given in dialogue (to keep it active.)
'That was yesterday morning, in a different life.'
Last three paragraphs - the disruption of the arrival of 'husband material' and the opportunity it gives to please her mother (the hidden problem).
My Sister the Serial Killer.
Now, let's look at a different genre of novel, a thriller by Oyinkan Braithwaite. The chapters of this book are very short indeed, and are more like scenes, so the disruption of everything changes comes not within the first chapter but later. (It is, as above, the love interest. The serial killing is given as the status quo, the rest before the disruption.)
My writers will be familiar with the Booker prize-winning novel from the Nobel Laureate J.M Coetzee which is a textbook perfect novel.
Notice here how though it's written in third-person, Coetzee works hard to give us the qualities of first-person narrative.
Change 'Then one Saturday morning everything changes. (Midpoint of first chapter.)
Take the advice well-evidenced here and work through these important aspects in your first chapter if you can (and you can.)
The order in which you give these basic story elements is not important, that's where your flair as 'chef d'oeuvres' comes in, but you'll want these ingredients:
You can even apply the format - so deftly applied in Sally Rooney's novel 'Normal People' - and use an ABA format as these writers do: Action/Backstory/Action.
Notice that 'The Problem' has another sticky note behind it.
Now, here's where it gets interesting and elegant as in simple.
In our three sample chapters, the apparent or suggested problem is not the real problem.
There are two problems in a first chapter served in this order:
Thing One. The immediate and apparent problem
These problems are served straight up, on the rocks. All very interesting no doubt, the author seems to say.
Thing Two. The hidden real problem to which our hero is blind, but of which the reader and author get sight is:
Each of these surfaces in the first chapter, but in a form which shows it's currently a blind spot for the hero, she or he is not seeing the truth of matters.
The last line of the first chapter of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine: 'Mummy was going to be thrilled.'
The last line of the first chapter of My Sister, the Serial Killer: 'Ayoola could never clean up as efficiently as I can.'
In Disgrace, the loss of power is given in various guises in the second half of the first chapter:
Then one day it all ended. Without warning his powers fled.
You people had it easier. Dawn accuses him, bringing the past of his 'people' into their relationship.
He ought to give up, retire from the game.
The last line of the first chapter hints that the problem is that he has not been a faithful man (to anyone or anything.)
A shadow of envy passes over him for the husband he has never seen.
(With Coetzee, it was always going to be more complex, more covert. It's literary, right?)
Both problems - overt and covert - are overcome in a showdown or conflict at the second event per the screenwriting model.
So we have a problem and its other half. Thing One and Thing Two.
At the outset, we have Thing One in play - the immediate problem - along with the dominant conceit or self-deception (the lie) - before the first disruption of the order occurs.
Thing Two emerges for a showdown with Thing One at the second event in a story of two principal events. Let's recap:
Thing Two is at the heart of the matter of your theme.
The line between Thing One and Thing Two, and the first and second event via that showdown or conflict is the narrative tension, the story arc.
In a way, it makes your life as a writer very simple; two posts and wire between them.
So for your first chapter, you will need the overt problem and the covert problem (to which your hero ins blind at outset), the very problem that is addressed with as much violence as necessary for it to be overcome and relegated to its proper place in your divine scheme of the order of nature as you will it.
Go, you Gods, find Thing One and Thing Two, and put the world to rights.
By the way, a note on prologue. A prologue is not a first chapter. It's a popular device currently and something of a marketing tool, in that it presents the reader with a question.
Whose body is in the swamp? Will the two lovers make it out of Auschwitz alive? Why would such a loving wife kill her husband?
It's succinct and functions as an adjunct to the back of book blurb. It offers bait on a hook to those browsing the first pages of books via Amazon's 'Look Inside' feature or at a book store. The question raised in the prospective customer's mind can be anything at all, but it must be there. Who? What? Why? How?
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Our members will enjoy a writing class this week with bestselling author Louise Doughty on the subject of Beginning a Novel. They've been asked to bring their openings with them, not to share, but to apply the insights live and with immediacy during the ninety-minute session. Eyes down, and pens at the ready, folks.
You might want to take an hour or so for yourself to eyeball that first chapter in advance.
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