1. jessilynnc
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    jessilynnc New Member

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    that pesky boring first chapter

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by jessilynnc, Jun 12, 2015.

    I have an intro to my story that I love. But the first chapter, not so much. I feel like the chapter is necessary because it's the where the story begins. My plot has a very specific order and I can't see myself changing it or writing it in a different order. On a side note: I feel like as my characters grow, the themes of the story change and I really don't what that to happen but I also really don't want to stunt my characters. Any advice is appreciated! I'm so frustrated right now, I've been researching for years and I'm finally ready to write and it's not coming together on paper as easily as it does in my mind. I've spent so much time on this already, I can't even stomach the thought of giving up on it. Thank you for taking the time to help :)
     
  2. Aaron Smith
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    Aaron Smith Contributing Member Contributor

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    Of course it is hard to give you situational advice when haven't provided any context or backstory, but the key to a good first chapter is making a lot of statements that makes the reader ask questions. If you spell everything out, they won't get hooked unless you have amazing rhetorical skills.
     
  3. jessilynnc
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    jessilynnc New Member

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    Okay, I can work with that, but what kind of questions? How do I as a writer decide which things need to be presented to the reader and which things they have to piece together for themselves? That's an issue for me because of course, I already have all the answers.. I feel like this falls under tactics which is something I was never good at.
     
  4. Link the Writer
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    Link the Writer Flipping Out For A Good Story. Contributor

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    This is what I've been told about the first chapter:

    + Start where the story gets interesting. You want your readers to be absorbed almost immediately, not get through fifty pages of backstory hoping the actual story will begin eventually. *glares at the fantasy book I borrowed from the library*

    + First impressions speaks louder than the rest. If the chapter opens up to two people yammering away about backstory detail, I'm probably going to quickly lose interest. Take the first chapter of the first Harry Potter book. I really thought the book was going to be about Vernon Dursley being introduced to the wizarding world and 'Harry Potter' was his wizard alias name.

    + Don't start with dreams. If your character's falling off a cliff going, "SHIT I AM ABOUT TO DIIIIEE!! AAAAAIIIEEE!!" and suddenly the character springs up out of bed, you can assume the readers will no longer trust you.
     
  5. jessilynnc
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    jessilynnc New Member

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    The dream thing is good, thank you! It doesn't apply to this project but definitely for another one I was writing and put on hold.
     
  6. Aaron Smith
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    Aaron Smith Contributing Member Contributor

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    As a writer you want to ask questions without explicit stating anything that sounds like a question. No, rather use ambiguity to make the reader ask the questions. The wrong way to do this is with dialogue.

    The opening paragraph in Stephen King's IT:

    What terror? Why doesn't it end? How can a newspaper boat have anything to do with this? These types of question make me want to read on; on to the next line and onto the next chapter and onto the last page where - I hope - it all ties together.

    Onto a more recent example:

    All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.

    Why do they pour from the sky? Why does it contain that message? Why are the bombing the city?

    You see a pattern?
     
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  7. Shadowfax
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    Shadowfax Contributing Member Contributor

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    One thing that one of the longer-serving members on this site says is that your first million words is your apprenticeship.

    It's not meant to depress you, it's meant to spell out that nobody writes a masterpiece with their first 80,000 words. There's blood, sweat, toil and tears before you can look at it and think it's even half-way good (unless you're so deluded you also believe you can fly!). Nobody (well, most people) can't even write a first sentence that's any good without re-writing it a dozen times.

    So, just write. Accept that you'll write rubbish. Soon, it'll be better rubbish. And so on. Learn your trade. Read how other writers do it (and I mean read books - good and bad - rather than how-to manuals). Learn from their successes - and their failures.

    Writing is work, sometimes hard. (I'm quoting something one of our published authors said a few days ago) Put in the work.

    And don't be so committed to your plan that you can't change it. My WIP is essentially a biography from history. But I still haven't decided whether my MC's wife is an airhead or a Machiavelli, or something else again. I can't change history, but I can change how and why things that happened did happen. You've got control over your own story, and if you come up with a better reason for X to happen, go with it.

    So get your butt on that chair and start typing!

    ETA: Don't sweat that your first chapter's not gripping you, get it written as a place-holder. By the time you've finished, you may well decide that it's not the first chapter at all, that chapter three is where you story really begins, and everything before it goes in the bin. Or your skills may have developed to the point where you can now see how to re-write it so that it works.
     
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  8. jessilynnc
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    jessilynnc New Member

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    Shadowfax, let me ask you this: Is it better to rewrite one chapter until it's perfect, then move on to the next, or write the whole thing, then rewrite the whole thing until it's perfect? This is the problem I'm having, or one of many. I've rewritten that first chapter so many times that I'm wondering if I'll ever get to the good stuff.

    Aaron Smith, thank you that does help!
     
  9. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    If you have a strong sense of the story you want to write and are in the middle of writing it, you may not want to lose momentum by stopping to address a problem with your first chapter. OTOH, if you feel you can't leave in place something that you know isn't the way you want it, then I would start by trying to identify just what it is that you don't like about it. Is it "too quiet" (a new and apparently rampant catch-phrase)? Is it too much information, not enough story? These are issues that can be addressed.

    ETA: you might want to go back and re-read the opening chapters of some of your favorite books. See which ones grab you the most and why.
     
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  10. Aaron Smith
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    Aaron Smith Contributing Member Contributor

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    Maybe your first chapter isn't fit for being a first chapter.

    Just write all you can and then edit. Thinking comes later.
     
  11. jessilynnc
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    jessilynnc New Member

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    EdFromNY, my first chapter has all of those problems. I don't have what you might call knowledgeable support. I'm the only one in my family that has a passion for literature. I realize that doesn't seem like it should make a difference but trust me, in my life it does. I feel like there are so many things that the reader has to know and understand before they continue. My husband read the first couple chapters and said the story makes no sense without that boring first chapter, but it's not actually interesting enough to make him want to continue. It's all very discouraging.
     
  12. TWErvin2
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    TWErvin2 Contributing Member Contributor

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    Re-read other books that you've enjoyed, especially books in the genre you're writing, even the same POV and possibly overall novel structure/story arc. Study the first chapter(s) and see why they worked and contrast it to why your novel's first chapter doesn't seem to be working.

    Other than that, some general information. Trust the reader. Let them figure things out as they go along. You don't have to establish a lot to get up and running in that first chapter. Also, finish that first draft, if you haven't. Then you'll be in a better situation to go back and revise that first chapter. By the end of the first draft you'll know the characters and conflict better than you did when you started.

    Finally, some characters are dynamic, in that they do change. It's your story, and the theme may evolve to become more complex, but it doesn't have to change. Maybe it's a point of conflict that is too easily being overcome by the main characters? Who knows? It's your writing, your novel. But, in the end, the story should be an interesting and enjoyable read.
     
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  13. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    If the first chapter is boring and the second chapter is where things get interesting, the second chapter may be a better place to start the book. If your first chapter is boring, a lot of readers will never make it to chapter two to find out whether you've actually written an interesting tale.
     
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  14. The Mad Regent
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    The Mad Regent Contributing Member

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    Like Dan Brown did with Angels and Demons.

    That's the second time Robert Langdon has 'awoke with a start' to a ringing phone. :supershock:
     
  15. Shadowfax
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    Shadowfax Contributing Member Contributor

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    To give credit where it's due, @EdFromNY and @TWErvin2 are the two guys whose words I pinched.

    As far as re-writing one chapter to perfect? As Ed alludes, do what's right for you. However, there is a view that you barrel on through to the end, and only then edit. P.G.Wodehouse would write it all out, then stick each page to the wall at the height he thought it deserved. Then he'd take each page and re-write to a higher level. When they reached the ceiling, it was ready for the publisher.

    My feeling is that you're so stuck with an unsatisfying first chapter that you'll go mad if you don't write something you like soon. So, move on. As for your husband's point about it not making sense without the information in the first chapter, it sounds like what you've got here is an info-dump - bad thing! If you read, say, Asimov's Caves of Steel, he doesn't spend the first chapter telling you all about how Earth is now one monstrous underground city and how it got like that. He starts telling the story, and fills in bits of information as it comes up. Sometimes you'll have to work a bit to get it in, but it's so much easier to read, and so much more interesting, than having to read a tourist guide before you even start looking at the architecture.

    Long story short - get on with chapter two.
     
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  16. Link the Writer
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    Link the Writer Flipping Out For A Good Story. Contributor

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    I liked the opening of IT a lot. I was instantly hooked by that more so than the latter; I love books that gives you subtle questions about seemingly unrelated things such as terror that won't end, a swollen gutter, and a newspaper boat. The latter made was more action-packed, yes, but it was filled with an air of mystery until it was directly answered at the end of the excerpt. Granted, WWII novels aren't my thing, so that's probably altering my opinion a bit. :p
     
  17. Aaron Smith
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    Aaron Smith Contributing Member Contributor

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    I only read it because it was prizewinning. I don't regret, though. I think it was an amazing book from start to finish.
     
  18. The Mad Regent
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    The Mad Regent Contributing Member

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    It's this simple: if the first page doesn't delve directly into the plot then the writing must be strong enough to hold to reader.

    In the book I'm reading at the moment, the protagonist spends the first 3-4 pages sitting in his comfy chair drinking beer and watching a Jerry Springer type show on T.V. Though it's supposed to reflect life of a retired person, the actual story doesn't throw a breadcrumb at you till about the fifth page, and this is fine, because the reading material displayed is entertaining and well written, meaning it encapsulates you nonetheless.

    It also depends on what kind of story you're writing. If it's a drawn out story that gradually moves along then you might just want to establish a 'purpose' and then start introducing other aspects, like characters and back story. It depends what works. There are no rules -- just favoured guidelines.
     
    Last edited: Jun 12, 2015
  19. EdFromNY
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    Yes, it does, but it's also a fact that will likely be more helpful than not. There's a time to get other opinions, but IMO that's after you've completed the draft and maybe edited a bit. I never tell my wife in more than the most general terms what I'm working on until it's well under way. When I first started my historical about Cuba, that's all I told her it was. Nothing else.

    As for knowledgeable support, your best source for that is the treasure trove of reading you've already done.

    Common problem, and easily solved. The trick, I think, is to give the reader only as much information as the reader needs to understand the story at that particular moment. And remember that the reader usually doesn't need as much information as you think (s)he does, and certainly not as much as you need.

    Try this. Pretend that your second chapter is actually Chapter One. You say it doesn't make any sense without that first chapter? Okay, go through, and at every spot where something doesn't make sense, decide what you need to do in order to make it make sense. See what the chapter looks like at the end. My prediction: you will not have used every single piece of information you had in Chapter One.
     
  20. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    That pesky boring first chapter.... is probably not your real first chapter.

    Back in the 1970's, when I was a kid, warming up the car was a real thing you had to do, especially in cold weather, or else it would stall as soon as you dropped it into gear. If you lived where it gets really cold, you may even have had a block warmer which was this thing you plugged into the wall to help heat up the engine block. You could tell the cars that had that because they often had what appeared to be the end of an extension cord tucked somewhere into the grill area of the car.

    Sometimes you need to warm up as you write and that first chapter isn't a real first chapter. It's just you warming up. It may have a place later in the story where you can fold that material back in or it may just need to be lopped off and chucked in the bin. Either way, if you yourself are noting that it's a "boring old first chapter", then it's not the real start to your story.
     
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  21. jessilynnc
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    jessilynnc New Member

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    Ed, that is a brilliant suggestion and I will do it. I'm ashamed I didn't think of it and I will be sure to let you know if your prediction is true!
     
  22. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    Good luck with it.
     
  23. sprirj
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    sprirj Contributing Member

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    The way I write is much like the structure of an essay...

    The last chapter holds all the answers, much like a conclusion. The first chapter should ask all the questions, much like an introduction.

    Or you could look at a novel like a joke.

    Why did the chicken cross the road?

    To get to the other side.

    A question teases human curiosity and makes the reader want to find out more.
     
  24. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    Chances are good there is some information you think is needed in the story in that first chapter, and chances are also good the reader doesn't really need the scene or the information. Try to pull the key elements out of the backstory in that first chapter. Don't assume the reader needs everything setup to get going into the story.

    No need to worry about that first chapter right now. It's not carved in stone. Keep writing, come back to it later, much later. You'll probably find not just the characters, but also other elements of the planned story change as you go. Some stuff in the plan will naturally show up on the paper and not fit just right.

    But that's OK, everything is fixable. And thanks to word processors, fixing is easy.
     
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  25. B93
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    B93 Active Member

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    I agree fully with Ed.
    "The trick, I think, is to give the reader only as much information as the reader needs to understand the story at that particular moment. And remember that the reader usually doesn't need as much information as you think (s)he does, and certainly not as much as you need."

    Give them what they NEED to follow the story, but let them keep reading to find what the WANT to know.
     
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