Saturday, March 9, 2019

Is your first chapter overused or a cliché? by Rita Karnopp

Is your first chapter overused or a cliché?
Chapter 1 is the most important chapter of your book – including the ending.  Agents and editors will be the first to admit – if they don’t care about your characters by page one - five – they toss your book in the ‘not interested’ pile.  Why?
Today’s readers are savvy and know what they want … a book that challenges them.  A book that they can’t put down.  If you kill your character off in the first chapter – will your reader care why they were shot, crushed under a pile of cement, or got their throat slashed?  Yet, this ruse is used way too many times.
How about the cliché plots?  You’re gripping the page as the main character enters the cave.  It smells musty of years past.  She hears growling and points her flashlight and catches a glimpse of a furry animal … Is it a wolf? … or are the fangs, dripping with saliva, larger than real life?  She shudders – then it leaps – your main character jumps, crossing her arms in front of her face … she wakes sitting on her bed - startled from the oh too real dream.  Was it a warning – or premonition?  Give me a break.
Your reader will most definitely feel cheated.  These plots are overused and outdated.  Today’s reader won’t buy it – they’ll close the book or iPad.
Then there’s the prologue that many writers believe sets the story – before you begin reading.  Most agents hate prologues.  Why not grasp your reader on the first page of chapter one?
I’ve always felt a prologue was a cheesy way of giving chunks of the back-story – which would be more effective it this information was weaved into the story as it progresses.
I must be blunt and admit one thing I truly hate is the story that has so much flora and fauna that I forget what my characters are doing.  Set the scene, but don’t go overboard.  Having said that, not enough ‘setting the scene’ leaves the reader wondering what’s going-on around all the dialog.
You need to find a good balance between action and dialog.  Descriptions should be

revealed as a character sees, feels, hears, tastes, and then verbalizes.  The five senses in a good balance of natural movement.

He lost himself in her cool, green, piercing eyes.  He pulled away, concentrating on the red locks that rose above her head with endless twists and twirls until they fell back down in ringlets, caressing her ample bosom.  His breathing increased, and he fought for air . . . blah – blah – blah … you’ve lost the reader for sure.
Another way to get your reader to send your book across the room, hitting the wall with a loud thud is to bore them with ‘little’ things.  Huh?  You know when the characters are doing things that don’t advance the story … but seems to fill the pages . . . but nothing seems to be happening.  Such as staring out the window – thinking.  Leaning against her pillow – lost in thoughts.  She twirled her hair around her finger – staring at the wall.
The clichéd “Once upon a time,” or “In the beginning,” or “It all started when,” can literally be the kiss of death!  Try something more gripping … perhaps something more modern … catch your reader’s attention from the very first couple of lines. 

When I started writing “Atonement” I wanted my reader to know the tone of the book.  I wrote, “He bent her finger back.  All the way back.”  It made me shudder when I wrote it … and I hope that’s the exact reaction my reader experience.
When I start reading a book where there is more telling than showing . . . I won’t continue past the first page.  I want compelling scenes . . . a story that makes me ask what would make her do that or why is he doing that?  The writer must answer all the what, when, where, who and how or I won’t be a happy reader.
In movies as well as books, I hate when it starts out with an introduction; My name is Janet Howell, and I would never have guessed ten years ago that I’d have been the type of woman who would kill her husband.  I'm the sweet, next-door type of girl.  Really?  How more effective would it be using dialog; “I may have wished my husband dead a time or two.  But I didn’t kill him.  I’m just not that type of woman.”
I never fall for the ‘I can’t stand his guts . . . and three pages later they’re falling to the ground in uncontrolled passion
Never . . . never . . . never create a character that has no faults.  She beautiful with no blemishes, speaks flawlessly and has the whitest teeth known to man.  She couldn’t hurt a soul because she’s the sweetheart every man wishes he could marry.  If she is perfect – she can’t change and grow in the story.  There is no real conflict with her … how can there be?  She’s perfect.  Do you know anyone who is perfect?  I sure don’t… and only in a fairytale could she be … except that would be boring, too.
Lastly, let’s discuss the problem with ‘information overload’ on the first page.  The writer is so bent on ‘setting the scene and introducing the character’ they feel the need to bring us up ‘to speed’ with their life to this point.  No.  This is a bad way of eliminating the prologue . . . which I hate anyway.  Feed us this back-story information as the story progresses . . . and we get to know and care about your characters. 


1 comment:

  1. Years ago, I remember hearing a writer at a workshop say, Start your story a moment before a change occurs, in the middle of the change or the moment after the change has occurred.


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