Thursday, August 15, 2013

Don't Fall Victim to These Three Common Chapter One Mistakes

I've been interning at a literary agency for a few months now.
I do not claim to be an expert at anything, but I thought I'd share the most common mistakes I see in the first chapters of writing submissions.
I hope this helps.

Mistake #1) Too much telling.

Someone, at some conference, at some point in your writing career, has told you that the first chapter of your manuscript needs to be full of action in order to grip the reader's attention straight away. Many writers have interpreted this as dropping the reader into the middle of an action sequence, like running for his/her life, or in the middle of a car chase - or something like that.

But that's not exactly what I would say is the right way to interpret this bit of advice.

What I would suggest is this:
- Show the main character DOING something. It can be shopping with a grumpy parent. It can be sitting at a diner eating a stack of blueberry pancakes. It can be whatever you like, but have your main character DOING something, anything really, other than TELLING the reader what has happened.
In other words, be in the moment. THAT moment. Doing something.

Virginia was a precocious child, one of seventeen, and never once got to have a leg of chicken. No matter how aggressively she would tackle her siblings when Mother set the platter of chicken parts down onto the supper table, was she able to snatch herself a leg, or even a thigh.

Virginia was small. Tiny, in fact. A half-sized person. And her larger, stronger, and more formidable sisters and brothers always beat her in the battle for food.

Virginia hated wings.

The moment Virginia caught the smell of fried chicken, she immediately formulated battle plans.
She sat at the supper table a full hour early, in order to get the best strategic spot for when Mother placed down the platter.
She cracked her knuckles, and popped the vertebrae in her neck in an attempt to stay limber.
This was the day she would succeed.

She would get a leg, even if she had to beat every one of her seventeen brothers and sisters in a brawl.
A thigh would do in a pinch, but a leg was Virginia's ultimate goal.
She'd get a leg, if it was the last thing she'd do.

Virginia hated wings.

I hope you can see the difference. The scene of her preparing for chicken battle is much more compelling. I think that's the best way to hook a reader off the bat. I'd want to keep reading to see if Virginia got that leg. But, if you had only told me that she never got a leg before, it's not as much as a draw to pull the reader forward.

Mistake #2) Too much exposition

Along the same lines as showing me that your character is doing something, also don't bog the reader down with a ton of past history.

A reader should be interested in what is happening in the story RIGHT NOW, and not what happened before the story even started.

If the reader needs to know what happened before, in order for the story to make sense (like world building), then add small descriptive clues (every three or four paragraphs give a single sentence of information), but save the world explaining and detailed past history for Chapter Two and Three.

Hook us first, THEN give me details. And even then, don't dump it all at once.

In Virginia's world, getting food was tricky. Not because food was scarce, but because there were so many other mouths in competition.

Virginia had seventeen brothers and sisters. She was the youngest. A mere shrimp to a whale of her eldest brother. The whale's name was George, and he often smelled like chicken feed. The Thompson family lived on a farm, and it was George's job to feed the chickens.

Virginia's job was easy by comparison. She was in charge of weeding Mother's vegetable garden. It was a large boxed garden complete with green beans, cabbages, carrots, and Virginia's personal favorite: squash.

Refer to the 'Do' paragraph above.

None of this information in the 'Don't' sample above is relevant right off the bat. Have patience. The reader will learn all about the world you have created! But give them time to learn it piece by piece. Don't toss them into the middle of Mother's vegetable patch, even if it is one of the most important places in Virginia's world.

Slowly. Ever so slowly SHOW the reader Virginia's world, one active scene at a time.

For example, after missing out on a chicken leg for the 800 billionth time, Virginia gets so mad she stomps away from the table and hides in the garden.

See how easy that was?

Mistake #3) The mix and match

Think you've found the solution?
Let's have your character DOING something, and then every paragraph or so, she or he sees something which reminds them of part of the back story, and then you explain what that memory is, and then whoops - back to the action scene.

I've used the mix and match before, absolutely. But I use this method in Chapter Two and Three when I am world building and explaining back story in detail. Not in Chapter One. Not if I can help it.

Yes, use the mix and match!
But wait until AFTER the reader is hooked, and don't do this in the middle of a car chase, or a life and death situation.
I sincerely doubt when running from a pack of wolves in the Siberian tundra that your hero or heroine will be musing about running through the fields of wheat in their childhood.
Really - when your character is afraid for their life - that's all he/she is thinking about.
Not wishing they were back home, running her palms across the tops if the budding sunflowers in that field behind their farmhouse that smelled like sunshine and was oh, so peaceful.
Look out, man-eating wolves!

See how jarring that is?

Make sure when you mix and match, you are not doing it in the wrong place.
And Chapter One, when you are showing your main character DOING something, is not the time to explain past memories. At least not ones that last longer than one sentence in one page.
It's just not.
Don't do it.

Now, I will remind every and all writers out there, that this world of writing is completely, 100% subjective, and you are free to disagree with everything I've written above.

I'm just letting you know what I view as mistakes, and maybe, just maybe, you can take my two cents worth of advice, and make something of worth out of it.

Good luck!

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